By: John Berthelsen

The government of Myanmar, having long since dropped any pretense of reform of restrictions on human rights, is raising the pace of its repression of the independent press. The Tatmadaw, the country’s military, is now suing the independent news outlet The Irrawaddy on allegations of criminal defamation over its coverage of the bitter ethnic conflict in the country’s Rakhine state.

As with the sentencing to seven years in prison earlier this week of two Reuters journalists on flawed charges, the filing of the defamation suit is deeply ominous. Too often in Myanmar courts, the decision is reached before the charges are filed.

On April 23 Myanmar’s Supreme Court upheld the convictions of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, the Reuters correspondents who five days earlier had won the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the murders of 10 Rohingya Muslims allegedly committed by the military. The two were charged with violation of the country’s colonial-era official secrets act, put in place when the British ruled what was then called Burma.

The two have already spent more than 16 months in prison for their reporting on the massacre. They won’t bother with a second, final appeal to the court, their lawyer said.  The two were sentenced last September by a district court after a months-long trial, in which a key prosecution witness admitted that the arrests were a setup.

“Usually, when one police officer reveals in court that a superior officer ordered the framing of defendants, and then another officer admits he destroyed the arrest record, an acquittal is forthcoming,” wrote Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia last September in a report called The Crushing of the Free Press in Myanmar.

“The reporters testified that police handed them a rolled-up document at the end of a dinner meeting requested by the police. The two men didn’t even have a chance to open the document before other plainclothes police pounced and arrested them for possessing state secrets. Even when it came out at the trial that the supposedly secret information had been published elsewhere, this apparently mattered little to the judge.”

As Human Rights Watch reported, “journalists were among the first beneficiaries of the political liberalization that started in 2011, and diplomats and UN officials frequently pointed to media freedom as a bellwether of real change and reform. But now it’s looking more like reporters may be the proverbial canary in a coalmine, with the erosion of media freedom pointing toward a deeper retrenchment and greater government backsliding on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, association and public assembly.

The hardening attitude towards civil rights and the persecution of the Rohingya has blackened the image of Aung San Suu Kyi, the British-educated widow who spent 15 of 21 years under house arrest following the 1989 crackdown.  More than 730,000 Rohingya, who are Muslims, have fled violence and persecution in the Buddhist-majority country without her raising an objection to government repression. They have been forced to flee into Bangladesh, where they live in squalor.

Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1991 but has been completely co-opted by Myanmar’s military in her role as leader of the National League for Democracy and the country’s de facto prime minister.  There have been increasing calls to cancel the Nobel Prize.

In the past, governments led by the United States have sought to bring pressure on repressive governments in similar cases, seeking the release of dissidents and journalists imprisoned clearly for the wrong reasons. With Donald J. Trump now in the White House in Washington, today, however, there appears little impetus to seek to force Myanmar or any other nations to free those the governments don’t like.

The Irrawaddy, now under fire, is an influential website founded in 1990 by Burmese exiles who fled violence from crackdowns on anti-military protests in 1989. It is published in both English and Burmese from Chiang Mai in Thailand, often featuring political analysis and interviews with Burma experts, business leaders, democracy activists and other influential figures.

The complaint filed against the website was triggered by an April 1 report concerning mid-March assaults on civilians by the Tatmadaw in Rakhine state that were published in both the English and Burmese editions, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

The editor, Ye Ni, was arrested but was allowed to post bail, according to the CPJ.

“This spurious criminal accusation against The Irrawaddy’s editor Ye Ni should be dropped immediately and unconditionally,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Myanmar’s military should stop using legal threats to stifle news coverage of ongoing armed conflict and allow journalists to do their jobs without fear of reprisal.”

Attempts by Asia Sentinel to reach Aung Zaw, the editor in chief of The Irrawaddy were unsuccessful.

The CPJ quoted Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, an official at the military’s True News Information Team, a communications department, as telling The Irrawaddy that its recent news coverage on clashes between government forces and the insurgent Arakan Army had been “unfair” and prompted the legal action.

Ye Ni told CPJ that The Irrawaddy has appealed to the Myanmar Press Council, an independent body tasked with resolving media disputes, to mediate the case, as permitted under the country’s Media Act to prevent frivolous lawsuits against journalists.

The case has drawn widespread condemnation from rights groups, foreign governments and media watchdogs as an attack on a free press and an indictment of Myanmar’s severely flawed judicial system.