Report finds decline in free speech and media freedom in Myanmar


Detained Reuters journalist Wa Lone (C) talks to the media as he leaves after the trial at the court in Yangon on 02 May 2018. Photo: Thura/Mizzima

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.”

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.”

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