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Report cites lack of progress in improving free expression in Burma

A local journalist (L) stands next to a police officer as Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone appear in court in Yangon, Burma, 10 January 2018
A local journalist (L) stands next to a police officer as Reuters journalists Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone appear in court in Yangon, Burma, 10 January 2018

YE AUNG THU/AFP/Getty Images

This statement was originally published on on 2 May 2018.

As Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) finishes a second year in office, a Scorecard released by a civil society coalition led by PEN Myanmar noted a significant lack of progress in instituting key reforms to secure free expression in Myanmar, as well as backsliding in a number of critical areas. Concurrently, a national survey of more than 200 journalists conducted by Free Expression Myanmar and partners found that media practitioners believe that press freedom is in decline, and that the government and military are the main cause. Both reports point to increased legal threats, imprisonment and physical harassment of journalists; restrictions on the ability to report from and receive information on conflict areas; and the lack of reform of media laws and institutions as key factors driving the decline.

The May 2018 Scorecard - compiled by PEN Myanmar and a range of 18 partners and issued on the eve of World Press Freedom Day on May 3 - assesses the current landscape for free expression, examining and scoring six key indicators: laws and regulations, media independence and freedom, digital freedom, right to information, safety and security, and freedom of assembly, speech, and opinion. The total score of only 2 out of 60 possible points - a 6-point drop from 2017 - indicates significant decline, with five indicators receiving scores of between 0 and 1 (indicating a regression) and only one indicator, right to information, showing a slight improvement. Participants called on the government to prioritize concrete steps to promote free speech and media freedom as core components of Myanmar's nascent democracy.

"While participants in the Scorecard process acknowledge that the challenges involved in reversing decades of repression are significant, in multiple areas the government has engaged in practices that explicitly threaten free expression," said U Myo Myint Nyein, President of PEN Myanmar. "The NLD government is closing the windows and doors to free expression, and we are going backwards."

Among the Scorecard's main findings for 2018:

. The vast majority of laws restricting free expression have not been amended or repealed, including the News Media law, the Printing and Publishing Law, the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, and criminal defamation provisions. Meanwhile, Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law has been used to bring dozens of cases against individuals for their online expression.

. There are inadequate provisions for public participation or input into the drafting of laws. For example, a privacy law was enacted with little or no transparency or consultation, which contains additional criminal defamation provisions and lacks components related to digital freedom and data protection.

. Antiquated laws that do not meet international standards, such as the Official Secrets Act and the Unlawful Associations Act are being used to arrest and imprison journalists and their sources who are covering stories and conducting investigations in the public interest, including, notably, Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were arrested in December 2017 and have spent more than 4 months behind bars.

. Media ownership remains problematic, with no plans to close state-controlled print media and no timeline for implementing the broadcasting law and giving out radio and television licenses.

. The government has restricted access to conflict zones, notably in northern Rakhine, Shan and Kachin States, and is attempting to monopolize all information coming out of these areas.

The Scorecard's findings are reinforced by practitioners' views. "Working journalists believe that media freedom has declined over the past year, and that the government, including the military, has shown little willingness to reverse this trend," noted Yin Yadanar Thein, Program Manager at Free Expression Myanmar. "We call on the government to develop a plan of action to increase media freedom in a holistic way, including changing laws as well as the behaviors of public officials."

"We join our colleagues, leaders from Myanmar's media and civil society, in calling on the NLD government to reverse this trend," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. "Building a strong foundation for democratic development will be impossible without also safeguarding journalists' ability to report on issues in the public interest without fear of retribution, ensuring citizens' ability to access information, and protecting individuals' ability to express themselves freely. These reports provide detailed data, a balanced assessment, and practical recommendations to improve the environment for the foundational right of free speech."

In recognition of the worrying decline in free expression over the past year and the courage of these two journalists, PEN America is honoring imprisoned Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo with the 2018 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which will be conferred on May 22. The Freedom to Write Award was bestowed on Burmese writers on four occasions during the rule of Myanmar's military government. This is the first time that PEN America has recognized honorees from Myanmar since the country held elections in 2015, marking international recognition that, despite significant political reforms, the situation for human rights and free expression is grave and worsening.

The May 2018 Scorecard was developed and produced by PEN Myanmar with support from PEN America, and is available in English and Burmese. The Scorecard can be found here.

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