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Myanmar: End Assault On Media Freedom


The Myanmar military junta has arbitrarily detained
journalists, threatened others into hiding, and dictated
proposed legislation that would severely curb media
freedoms, Fortify Rights said today. The junta arbitrarily
arrested or detained at least nine journalists since a
February 1 coup d’état.

“In
times of crisis like these, media freedom is especially
necessary,”
said Ismail Wolff, Regional Director of
Fortify Rights. “The junta evidently feels threatened
by the truth. Its repressive measures targeting a free and
independent media cannot stand.”

On
February 14, the military detained overnight five Myanmar
journalists covering a
crackdown by security forces during a protest in
Myitkyina
, Kachin State.

“We were kept in a
prison transport vehicle . . . We were detained at 8:45 p.m.
and let go the next day at around 10:30 a.m.,” one of the
journalists told Fortify Rights the day after the military
released him. “[When released], the soldiers explained
that we were detained because we disclosed information about
the crackdown and how many military and police were
there.”

The detained journalists included members of
74 Media, Mizzima News, and Eternally Peace
News Network.

According to one of the journalists
who spoke to Fortify Rights, soldiers released all five
without charge and forced them to sign a document saying
they would not violate the junta’s ban on gatherings of
five or more people or the nighttime curfew issued on
February 8. The authorities also confiscated the
journalists’ cameras and returned them upon
release.

State security forces detained at least four
other journalists since the February 1 coup, according to
the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
The junta reportedly released all the journalists except
freelance journalist Shwe Yi Win, who police allegedly
arrested on February 11 in Pathein, the capital city of
Ayeyarwady Region. Her mother told the Irrawaddy Burmese
on February 12 that two women police officers took her
daughter, and she has no information on her whereabouts. As
of February 18, she remains in detention according to the
AAPP.

The junta’s arrests and detentions of
journalists have created a fearsome chilling effect on
working journalists, said Fortify Rights. Fortify Rights
documented how several members of the press in Yangon
Region, Rakhine State, and Kachin State went into hiding or
avoided staying at their homes out of fear since the
February 1 coup.

“I am not staying at home,” one
journalist told Fortify Rights, name withheld for security.
“I have not slept at home for two weeks, since February 2.
Last night, police came to the neighborhood where I’m
hiding. They didn’t come where I was [staying], but I
could see them in the streets.”

“Ten of our staff
are now in hiding, including editors and reporters,” an
editor-in-chief of a Myanmar media organization told Fortify
Rights. “The military government should not try to stop
journalists from doing our jobs. Reporting the current
situation is our job. It is our duty.”

Another
journalist told Fortify Rights that members of his newsroom
do not sleep at home out of fear of arrest: “We are afraid
that the military intelligence will come and get us at
night.”

On February 12, Tom Andrews, the United
Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights
in Myanmar, addressed the U.N. Human Rights Council’s
emergency session on Myanmar, raising concerns about media
freedom in the country, saying: “Police beat at least one
journalist, others are reporting being harassed and targeted
by plain-clothed police. Some have gone into
hiding.”

On February 16, the military junta’s
executive body, the State Administrative Council (SAC), held
its first press conference. Deputy Minister for Information
Zaw Min Tun reportedly spoke to media, saying the military
is taking “necessary measures according to the law if
media reports violate the law.” He continued to tell the
press conference, “I can’t promise not to take any
action against the media.”

Prior to the coup, the
military as well as the National League for Democracy
(NLD)-led government were responsible for unlawful
restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedoms.
For instance, on January 22, members of the Myanmar
military filed criminal defamation complaints
against
two journalists for publishing a story alleging the military
confiscated rice and used forced labor in Rakhine
State.

Since February 1, the military junta also
dictated a raft of proposed legislation that would severely
restrict fundamental rights, including press freedoms. On
February 9, the SAC sent a draft cyber security law to
telecommunications operators, requesting input by February
15. If enacted, the bill, on file with Fortify Rights, would
effectively criminalize criticism of the junta, with
penalties of up to 10 million Myanmar Kyat (US$7,000) and/or
up to three years in prison for each offense.

Section
64 of the draft cyber security law criminalizes “creating
misinformation and disinformation with the intent of causing
public panic, loss of trust or social division on a cyber
space.” Section 29 prohibits “written or verbal
statement[s] against any existing law,” and Section 70
prohibits attempts to encrypt or otherwise disguise the
source of online information or data. These vague and
sweeping provisions pose unnecessary and disproportionate
restrictions on the right to freedom of
expression.

“Min Aung Hlaing seems
intent on dialing back any gains made over the past decade
in terms of freedom of expression and access to
information,”
said Ismail Wolff. “These are
blatant, blunt tools of censorship and
fear-mongering.”

On February 15,
Telenor Group, one of two wholly foreign-owned
telecommunications providers in Myanmar, released a
statement saying that it “strongly object[s] to the
passing of the bill” without key concerns being addressed
first. These included ensuring “due consideration to
fundamental human rights such as freedom of speech and
expression in Myanmar and personal privacy and security
concerns to people in Myanmar.” The company also said that
passing the proposed bill “during a state of emergency and
granting such broad powers to a temporary administration is
not appropriate.” The company called for the draft law to
be debated in Parliament to ensure it is properly
scrutinized and “fit for purpose and in line with the
Constitution of Myanmar.”

The military junta should
urgently withdraw its plans to enact the bill and protect
the right to free expression in Myanmar, said Fortify
Rights.

Furthermore, on February 11, the Myanmar
Ministry of Information sent a letter to the Myanmar Press
Council–an independent media body–ordering media to
cease “falsely” referring to the junta as a “coup
government” and said doing so violates the country’s
News Media Law and Printing and Publishing
Law.

“It’s a bad policy,” a Myanmar
journalist-in-hiding told Fortify Rights on February 13.
“It’s a violation against the press. We have to write
the truth and say [the military] took power from the
people.”

The military also blocked access to key
social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and
suspended internet access nationwide from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m.
since February 15.

Under international human rights
law, restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and
peaceful assembly are permissible only when provided by law,
proportional, and necessary to accomplish a legitimate aim.
In General Comment No. 37 on the right to peaceful assembly,
the U.N. Human Rights Committee acknowledged the particular
importance of the role of journalists and human rights
defenders in monitoring and reporting on assemblies, stating
that “[t]hey must not face reprisals or other harassment,
and their equipment must not be confiscated or
damaged.”

The right to freedom of expression and
peaceful assembly also extends to online activities and
digital services. In relation to the ensuring the right to
peaceful assemblies, the U.N. Human Rights Committee in
General Comment No. 37 calls for States not to “block or
hinder Internet connectivity in relation to peaceful
assemblies,” or use “geotargeted or technology-specific
interference with connectivity or access to
content.”

International human rights law also
protects the right to liberty and protection from arbitrary
arrest or detention. An arrest or detention as punishment
for the legitimate exercise of a protected right, such as
engaging in the right to freedom of expression or peaceful
assembly, is considered arbitrary and in contravention of
international human rights law.

“The international
community must acknowledge that the military junta is not a
legitimate government and has no authority to pass or amend
legislation,” said Ismail Wolff. “Governments should
impose targeted sanctions against the architects of this
coup.”

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