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Despite the release of detained Reuters reporters, free speech remains under threat in Myanmar

Two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo walked free from Insein prison in Yangon. Photo and caption by Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy is a content partner of Global Voices.

Media groups and human rights advocates are celebrating the release of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who spent more than 500 days in detention for their role in investigating the massacre of some Rohingya residents in northern Myanmar. But despite their release, the state of free speech in the country is still undermined by the continued detention and persecution of some artists, journalists, and activists. Consider the following cases:

Defamation case against The Irrawaddy

A defamation complaint was filed by the military's Yangon Region Command against The Irrawaddy's Burmese-language editor U Ye Ni over the news website's alleged unfair coverage of the armed clashes between government forces and the insurgent Arakan Army in Rakhine State. The Irrawaddy said it did nothing but report the escalating armed clashes in the region since the start of 2019. Here is U Ye Ni’s response to the case filed by the military:

I feel sorry about the military’s misunderstanding of us. Journalism dictates that we reveal the suffering of people in a conflict area. Our intention behind the coverage is to push those concerned to solve the problems by understanding the sufferings of the people.

The Irrawaddy is a content partner of Global Voices.

Jailed for satire

Meanwhile, five members of the Peacock Generation Thangyat troupe were sent to Insein prison to await trial for their satirical performance mocking the army. Thangyat is performance art similar to slam poetry featuring folk verses with traditional musical notes and is combined with song, dance, and chants. The group was charged with violating article 505(a) of the penal code which criminalizes the circulation of statements, rumors, or reports with the intent to cause any military officer to disregard or fail in his duties.

Zeyar Lwin, one of the accused, said:

All of our cases are political issues so that they need to resolve them as political issues. And also, I’d like to say all of us need to join the work for amending the 2008 constitution being done in parliament. In my opinion all of these issues can be resolved if we can do the primary work of amending the constitution.

Zeyar Lwin is referring to the 2008 constitution which many analysts believe was designed to reinforce military rule even after the restoration of civilian leadership.

Sickly filmmaker in detention

The case of filmmaker Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi also reflects the restrictions imposed on critical artists. A complaint filed by a military officer against the filmmaker's ‘defamatory’ Facebook posts led to his arrest. Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi is the founder of the Myanmar Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival and a known critic of the military's involvement in politics. His supporters are calling for his release on humanitarian grounds, since he has had half of his liver removed due to cancer and suffers from heart and kidney problems. The Human Rights Film Network, a partnership of 40 human rights film festivals around the world, sent this letter to the government:

As a concerned international human rights community, we seek reassurance from the Myanmar government to ensure that Section66(d), which was meant to enhance progress of telecommunications, will not be used to silence the voice of Myanmarese civilians seeking to voice their opinions and take part in the democratic process in Myanmar.

The letter refers to the controversial Section 66(d) defamation law which has been used by authorities to charge critics, activists, and journalists.

Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi's petition for bail was rejected by a local court. His next hearing is scheduled for May 9, 2019.

“They should never have been jailed in the first place.”

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in prison for violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act. The Supreme Court upheld their conviction last April with finality but they were released from prison after they were granted a presidential pardon during the country’s traditional New Year.

Groups like the Southeast Asian Press Alliance welcomed the release of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo but they also highlighted the injustice suffered by the two reporters:

They should never have been jailed in the first place, because they committed no crime.

While we welcome this positive development, the case of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo is proof that journalists are in constant risk of political reprisal for keeping power in check.

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