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Freedom of expression is a basic human right and the founding value of ROOSTERGNN. In this Special Series, ROOSTERGNN explores the state of freedom of expression around the world. Follow the complete series here.

It’s been more than three years since a military-backed government replaced the junta that had ruled for half a century. When the reforms began there was hope that the laws implemented by the junta would be genuinely overhauled and democratic freedoms returned to Myanmar. To an extent this has occurred – media restrictions were eased, a political opposition joined parliament, and laws were introduced to allow freedom of expression and protest. Yet still journalists and activists continue to be jailed, and the opposition seems to be more of a token, rather than substantial, presence in parliament – a proportionately small bloc whose committees have the authority to suggest matters to parliament. On top of that, despite the government’s proclaimed stab at peace with ethnic armies, the war in Kachin state has actually been rekindled since the new government came to power, ceasefires that have been signed are evidently tenuous, and numerous bouts of quite vicious violence have broken out between Buddhist and Muslim communities, with Myanmar’s Muslim population, particularly the Rohingya minority, becoming the targets of a worsening campaign of violence and persecution.

In an exclusive interview, ROOSTERGNN had the opportunity to speak with Francis Wade, a freelance journalist working on the current situation in Myanmar.

Is freedom of expression currently a legal right in Myanmar?

It’s a grey area. There’s certainly been an improvement with regards to freedom of expression in the last few years, and greater space for media and public protest. But there are also a number of reasons to be concerned about whether this is backsliding. Two bills were passed through parliament in March, one of which, the Media Bill, supposedly guaranteed greater press freedom and an end to censorship. But a second one, known as the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, counters that by allowing the government to retain ultimate control over who is and isn’t allowed a publishing license. This is a veiled method of top-down censorship that contradicts claims that the government is allowing free media to flourish. On top of that there have been several instances in the past year where journalists have been gagged, threatened with legal action, and even jailed for reporting on issues known to be highly sensitive to the government, as in the case of the five journalists who have been on trial since February for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory. So while the rhetoric of the government would suggest freedom of expression is a right for Myanmar citizens, the translation of that rhetoric into rules that are adhered to across the board of authority is yet to happen, and it remains precarious ground for media workers.

Several Burmese newspapers recently printed black-bordered front pages in protest at the recent arrests and jailing of journalists. What impact do you think protests such as this are having on the people of Myanmar and in particular its journalists/reporters?

The fact that those newspapers even went to print with those front pages is a sign that there has been some progress in the past few years. The show of solidarity among journalists will have been encouraging for those in media whose security and freedom to operate is still shrouded in so much ambiguity and anxiety. There is also the fact that newspapers like Daily Eleven that were long considered more aligned with government interests than the (formerly) exiled media like Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) have joined hands with DVB and others to protest the restrictions on media freedom.

Do you think the Press-freedom issues in Thailand and Burma are in any way comparable? If so in what way?

The curbs on media freedom in Thailand are still very new, and it’s difficult to predict where things will head from here. In Burma the media was under more or less total control of the junta, or at least forced to adhere to strict rules set by the junta – newspapers could only publish in journal format once per week to allow the censor board time to vet the material often newspapers and journals would hit the newsstands with large holes in their pages where the censors had literally cut an article out with a pair of scissors. The Thai junta hasn’t so far consolidated media under its control, but it has made it clear that any criticism of the coup and its aftermath won’t be tolerated – more recently this has been extended to even liking a critical post on Facebook.

Do you think the licensing of newspapers continues to restrict freedom of expression in Myanmar?

The fact that it is the government that controls licenses should be of great concern. Remember that this government despite its various paeans to reform, continues to be heavily influenced by a military elite that has shown clear signs that it is unhappy with the extent of reform pledges.The key value of a free press is that it is able to question decisions by the government, point out its shortcomings, expose malfeasance and abuse — in short to be the main watchdog for the issues most sensitive to that government. If the ruling powers retain control over licenses, and therefore hold the final word on who can and can’t publish or broadcast, then the overall worth of media is greatly eroded. And when that begins to happen, as we saw during the era of the junta in Myanmar, and which could soon happen in Thailand, there’s a real danger that media paradoxically becomes a tool for the government deflect accusations and add a gloss to an otherwise regressive political landscape. There is some optimism in Myanmar however in the sense that the media and public are well versed in that method of manipulation, and that it has journalists savvy enough to spot this, and courageous enough to fight it.

Do you think that the jailing of Zaw Pe suggests that freedom of expression is still restricted? How reliable are the government’s reasons for his imprisonment?

Handing down a one-year sentence to anyone on charges of “disturbing” someone – in this case a civilservant – is grossly over the top there was never even a suggestion that any violence had occurred. What seems to have been the main concern of authorities was that Zaw Pe was filming at the location when it’s unclear whether he had permission , yet even then, his charges had nothing to do with the Video Act (used by the junta to jail undercover video journalists). It’s no coincidence that both the arrest of the journalists for reporting on chemical weapons facilities and Zaw Pe’s arrest happened in Magwe division; that’s also where Yae Kha a journalist with Mizzima News, was arrested in April for peacefully rallying in support of free media. It speaks to the fact that in many areas of the country, away from the international spotlight, things remain as they were under military rule – local authorities resistant to the idea of ceding any powers to civilians, and the intensely combative military attitude that considered those who questioned authority as criminals.