Amendments to telecommunications law reveal junta effort to curb press

Amendments made to Myanmar’s telecommunications law earlier this week are the latest in a series of moves by the country’s junta to suppress journalists and muzzle the media, experts and rights activists said Friday.

Nine months after the military seized power in a Feb. 1 coup, junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on Monday amended the Law on Television and Broadcasting to include lengthy prison sentences for violators instead of merely fines. The head of the military has amended or added new provisions to 63 laws since taking control of the country.

The original law, enacted in 2015 to promote media development, states that regulations governing the use of the internet do not apply to television and radio broadcasts. Legal experts told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the amended law omits this clause and adds the phrase “use of any technology” to include internet broadcasting. Additionally, violations are now punishable with sentences of up to five years in prison.

For months authorities have charged members of the press under the Defamation and Unlawful Association Acts for expressing views critical of the regime. They have also revoked the licenses of private media outlets deemed insufficiently supportive of the new government.

Veteran journalist Myint Kyaw said the amendments represent a further constriction of press freedoms under the junta.

“This is a new threat to those media outlets posting content online, especially video and radio broadcasts,” he said.

Nine months after the coup, security forces have killed 1,242 civilians and arrested at least 7,038, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners — mostly during crackdowns on anti-junta protests.

The junta claims it unseated the National League for Democracy government because the party had engineered a landslide victory in Myanmar’s November 2020 election through widespread voter fraud. It has yet to present evidence backing up the allegation, and protests against the new regime continue.

Journalists in Myanmar say the military has targeted the media for shining a light on human rights abuses by documenting state-directed crackdowns and killings of anti-junta activists.

Since the coup, authorities have suspended the licenses of nine private media outlets, including Myanmar Now, Mizzima, 7-Day News, DVB, the 74 Media, Delta News Agency, Yangon Modern Media, the Myitkyina News Journal and the Tachileik News Agency.

Telling ‘the true story’

Khin Maung Myint, a veteran lawyer from Yangon, said Monday’s amendments are aimed at controlling the domestic media and reducing its threat to the military.

“TV and radio news can tell the true story of what is happening in the country. And from these, the people of Myanmar have learned what is really happening across the country and a strong opposition has grown as a result,” he said.

“In order to stop this, to reduce the impact, they have to make an attempt to ban news outlets — especially television broadcasts, which are bringing real-time images to the people.”

When asked for comment on the amendment by RFA, junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun said that while the media is commonly referred to the fourth pillar of democracy, laws must be amended to remain effective and to prevent a lack of accountability.

“Our goal is for the law to provide effective remedies,” he said. “Effective treatment must be provided for both the perpetrator and the victim.

“We are doing this because there must be an effective punishment to bring forth effective treatment.”

Rolling back freedoms

Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for New York-based media watchdog the Committee to Protect Journalists, slammed the military for curtailing press freedom in Myanmar.

“I think the military junta is deliberately trying to roll back press freedom to stifle and censor news reporting of their rising abuses, including the killing of over 1,000 anti-coup dissidents since the coup,” he said in an email to RFA.

“They also want to shut down reporting that shows how strong the resistance to the coup has become. Their ultimate aim, it seems, is a blackout of all independent reporting so that state media control and whitewash the narrative.”

He called developments under the junta a “sharp and bitter reversal” of the press freedom achievements made in Myanmar in recent decades.

The junta has arrested 103 journalists, including U.S. and Japanese reporters, in the nine months since the coup and 32 remain behind bars.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 140th out of 180 countries and regions in its 2021 World Press Freedom Index, down from 139th a year earlier. February’s coup had brought an end to reforms adopted under civilian leadership and set the nation’s journalists back a decade, the group said.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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