Freedom of the press in myanmar: accused of being a terrorist

Myanmar’s powerful military retaliates for an interview with a rebel spokesman. The news site’s editor-in-chief faces life in prison.

Ko Nay Lin, editor-in-chief of the Voice of Myanmar, in court in Mandalay on Tuesday Photo: reuters

Police in Myanmar’s second-largest city of Mandalay on Monday arrested Ko Nay Lin, editor-in-chief of the English- and Burmese-language Voice of Myanmar (VOM) news website. According to the website of the former exiled Irrawaddy magazine, the journalist had published an interview with the spokesman of the ethnic rebel group Arakan Army (AA) on March 27.

This group is fighting for a separate state in the west of the Southeast Asian country on the border with Bangladesh and was classified as a terrorist organization by the government on March 23.

The interview with the AA spokesman is considered by the authorities to be a violation of the anti-terrorism law. It carries a sentence of between ten years and life in prison. Ko Nay Lin was formally charged on Tuesday, and the first hearing in his case is scheduled to take place as early as April 9. Since his arrest, the VOM website has been blocked.

The international organization Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is calling for Ko Nay Lin’s immediate release. "Reporting on armed conflict does not mean being a terrorist yourself. There is no justification for the threat of life imprisonment," said CPJ Southeast Asia Representative Shawn Crispin. Myanmar must end its attacks on journalists, he added.

National Press Council protests

Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch calls the charges absurd. Myanmar’s powerful military’s sole concern, he said, is that there are no reports it cannot control in the armed conflict.

Myanmar’s Press Council also protested the arrest. It is a journalist’s duty to report neutrally and therefore to talk to both sides in a conflict, explained Ko Kyaw Swa Min, and if charges were to be brought, the media law, not the anti-terrorism law, should be applied.

U Ye Ni, a reporter for the Burmese-language website of the former exile organ Irrawaddy, had already been indicted in mid-March. He had reported on an armed clash between the Arakan Army and the Burmese military in the town of Mrauk-U last April. He is accused of violating the Telecommunications Act. He faces two years in prison and a hefty fine.

Arakan, now called Rakhine, had been an independent kingdom until the Burmese conquest in 1784. Later, it became part of British India. Today, several ethnic groups in Myanmar are fighting for autonomy or secession.

Freedom of the press: 138th place

In Rakhine, the current conflict with the Buddhist AA has led to the flight of tens of thousands of people in recent years. In addition, the Burmese military has forcibly driven about one million people of the Rohingya Muslim ethnic group from there to Bangladesh.

In Myanmar, the military remains the decisive power. Former opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi does de facto lead the government. The Burmese nationalist is formally a state councilor, but she has never dared to defend the media against the military.

Myanmar ranks 138th out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom rankings.