Gov’t Uses COVID-19 Pandemic As Cover To Prosecute Journalists


Burma News International (BNI) sent an open letter to the president and state counselor to withdraw all charges against several editors accused of violating the Terrorism Act. 

Nan Paw Gay, the chair of BNI’s policy committee, told Khonumthung News the government should protect freedom of the press and not criminalize it.

As Burma transitions the road to democracy and national reconciliation efforts are underway with the ethnic groups Nan Paw Gay asked why the government is arresting journalists from ethnic media groups. “We want the president and state counselor to protect the media and this is why we sent the letter,” she explained.

Police raided the office of Narinjara News, a member newsgroup of BNI, located in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, after it published an interview with Arakan Army (AA) spokesperson Khine Thukha. Three reporters were taken to the police station and released that day.

On the same day, charges were laid against Khine Mrat Kyaw, the chief editor of Narinjara News and Ko Thar Lum Zawng Htet (aka Hlaing Thit Zin Wai), the chief editor of Yangon Khit Thit.

Khine Mrat Kyaw is a member of the Myanmar Press Council (MPC) and a reporter for BBC Burma. He’s also part of BNI’s policy committee. Ko Thar Lum Zawng Htet is the joint secretary-2 of MPC.

Ko Nay Myo Lin (aka) Ko Nay Lin, the chief editor of Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar (VOM), was also charged for interviewing the AA spokesperson and is currently being detained in a holding cell in Mandalay Region. If convicted he could face a life sentence.

In late March, the Ministry of Communications and Transport ordered mobile companies to block 221 websites it claimed were publishing fake news.

A statement from Telenor said the government made the order under section 77 of the Telecommunications Law. The law gives authorities the power to tell telecom license holders to block websites in “emergency situations,” using the COVID-19 pandemic as an excuse. The government hasn’t published a list of the blocked websites but several prominent outlets that cover the conflict in Rakhine State were inaccessible this week.

“As journalists, we need to write balanced news and this involves reaching out to all the stakeholders,” Nan Paw Gay told Khonumthung News. She said when the government declared AA an unlawful association on March 23 they charged many media groups that are reporting about fighting between the Burma Army and the armed group.

During the COVID-19 pandemic “the physical and mental safety of all journalists are really essential” and they should be protected, the BNI open letter said. State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi has talked about the importance of raising awareness about the novel coronavirus. The media in Burma plays a crucial role in educating the public about this new crisis the country faces, the letter said.

Last year, police charged Ko Aung Marm Oo, the chief editor of Development Media Group (DMG), based in Sittwe, for violating the unlawful association act 17/2. DMG reported on fighting between the Burma Army and AA in Rakhine State. Ko Aung Marm Oo’s case is ongoing.

Irrawaddy Burmese-language editor Ye Ni was charged by Burma Army Lt Col Zaw Min Tun of the Yangon Region Command over the media outlet’s coverage of the conflict in Rakhine State. Ye Ni faces up to two years in prison if convicted under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.

BNI was formed by Mizzima, Narinjara News, Kaladan Press Network and Khonumthung News in Kolkata in India in 2003. Currently, BNI has 16 member newsgroups across Burma.


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