Reporters Without Borders and its partner organization, the Burma Media Association (BMA), condemn the criminal libel suit that a construction ministry engineer has brought against the Modern Weekly newspaper and one of its reporters, Thet Su Aung, over a report last November criticising the state of roads in the central region of Mandalay.
The two organizations are also concerned about other recent restrictions on media freedom reported by the exile media, which continue to demonstrate the importance of their role in covering developments inside Burma.
“The libel action against Thet Su Aung is marring the reform process that the government has initiated with respect to the media and we call for its withdrawal,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Furthermore, while we hail the steps taken by the authorities to protect journalists in their work, the censorship of an opposition campaign speech contradicts their claims to be sincere about democratization.
“The same goes for the media law that is currently being drafted. As it stands, it will not allow the authorities to make good on their promises to guarantee media freedom. A complete overhaul of the relevant legislation, which dates back to the 1920s and 1960s, much be envisaged. The country needs an independent press council to mediate between plaintiffs and the media to avoid having to refer cases to the courts. At the same time, a really independent journalists’ union is needed to provide journalists with legal protection and assistance."
Reporters Without Borders added: “The international community continues to be informed about these violations thanks to the remarkable work of news media based outside Burma such as Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima News, The Irrawaddy and Radio Free Asia. As long as violations of freedom of information continue and these media are the only ones, or first ones to report them, we will regard Burma’s democratization as still incomplete.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi told Radio Free Asia on 8 March that the authorities had censored part of a speech she was to record for broadcasting on state TV ahead of the first round of partial parliamentary elections on 1 April. The censored paragraph accused the former military government of abuse of authority, abusing its own legislation and not respecting the rule of law.
It was not the first time that Suu Kyi has been obstructed in the course of her election campaign, despite the government’s promises. The government nonetheless permitted the broadcasting of comments by Suu Kyi criticizing several laws and the 2008 constitution. They also let her say that reserving a quarter of the seats in parliament for the military was “anti-democratic.” Although the government has adopted a number of reforms, Suu Kyi has urged the international community to follow the elections closely in order to reach an informed position on the democratic process in Burma.
Thet Su Aung, who appeared in court on 6 March, is being sued in connection with an article about the poor condition of several roads and bridges in the town of Thabeikkyin and, in particular, on the road from Thabeikkyin to Taguang. The article also said that the engineer Nwe Nwe Yi had allowed the Su Htoo Pan company to charge high tolls to travellers along this stretch of road.
Htun Win, the editor of the newspaper Shwe Mandalay, pointed out that Thet Su Aung was not the only reporter to write about the poor condition of the Thabeikkyin-Taguang road but she was the only one to be sued.
Sources close to the Press Scrutinization and Registration Department have meanwhile reported that the department in the process of drafting the first new media law, and that it is be a modified version of the Printers and Publishers Registration Act, a law adopted after the 1962 coup. The sources also said that, as it stands, this new law will concern only the print media and will completely ignore other kinds of media.
Burma is ranked 169th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. At least four journalists (Zaw Tun, Win Saing, Ne Min and Aung Htun) and one blogger (Kaung Myat Hlaing, also known as Nat Soe) are still detained as they were not included in the 14 January amnesty.