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Jail, lawsuits cast shadow over Myanmar media freedom

Sunday, 11 May 2014 - 1:41pm IST | Place: Myanmar | Agency: Reuters

Two years after Myanmar scrapped censorship in one of its boldest reforms, its journalists are again living in fear of jail and are convinced a state-sponsored crackdown is under way to limit press freedom.

Eight members of the media have been arrested since December and two jailed in what critics say is government backsliding on some of the wide-ranging reforms that led the West to lift sanctions after decades of military rule.

"The hardliners in the government think (media freedom) has now gone too far," says Thiha Saw, chief editor of the English-language Myanma Freedom.

Reporting on sensitive issues such as graft, land grabs and religious and ethnic tensions may have provoked the reaction, journalists say.

The arrests evoke memories of the country's oppressive past, with detention of members of the media a hallmark of the previous military government, said London-based Amnesty International in a recent statement.

Toe Zaw Latt, bureau chief for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), has felt the brunt of the crackdown.

One of his video journalists was jailed last month, with hard labour, while an Australian intern working with DVB without credentials was deported on Thursday after he took part in a protest calling for his colleague's release.

"It's a deliberate and consolidated effort by the government to restrict the media," Toe Zaw Latt said.

DVB video journalist Zaw Pe was working on a story about Japanese-funded scholarships for Burmese students, but found himself behind bars for the second time having been imprisoned by the junta that ruled brutally for 49 years.

Journalist Ma Khine was sentenced to three months in prison in December for defamation, trespassing and abusive language while interviewing a lawyer about judicial corruption.

Three months later, four journalists and the chief executive of Unity Journal were charged with violating the 1923 State Secrets Act. They were arrested over a story that said Chinese engineers were helping the military set up a chemical weapons factory and could face a maximum 14 years in prison.

"Journalists have been testing the government in the past few months by covering once very sensitive topics," said a freelance journalist, who requested anonymity.

"They have, in my view, crossed the permissible lines defined by the limited reforms."

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