Despite Reform, Expression in Myanmar Still Not Free, According to New PEN Report
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New Report Calls on Aung San Suu Kyi Government to Protect Free Speech as Pillar of Democracy
NEW YORK— As Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) prepares to take office with a strong majority next year, it must prioritize concrete steps to safeguard free expression as a fortifying pillar of Myanmar’s nascent democracy, PEN American Center says in a new report to be launched Friday at a public event in Yangon.
Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar surveys the rocky landscape for media and public discourse since the ruling military junta lifted the curtain on the southeast Asian nation in 2012 after five decades of dictatorship and isolation from the modern world. Since then, a robust independent press has emerged and the use of new telecommunications technologies has skyrocketed in Myanmar, the fastest growing internet market in Asia. But while the elimination of Myanmar’s notorious system of blanket pre-publication censorship has led many to believe that free expression constraints are a thing of the past, PEN’s report points to new hurdles that threaten the people of Myanmar’s newfound and fragile freedom.
The PEN report highlights a series of weak protections, restrictive laws, and intrusive bureaucratic structures that chill expression in Myanmar. These include Myanmar’s heavily subsidized state-run media sector and a regulatory framework that gives broad powers to the Ministry of Information to censure other outlets for content. PEN has also documented an escalating pattern of prosecutions and long jail sentences for media workers, as well as harassment and physical attacks on reporters, like those who covered the March 2015 student protests. Censorship still rears its head in Myanmar through the Armed Forces Accurate Information Team, which issues veiled threats to outlets about content perceived as critical of Myanmar’s army and government. Broad and punitive internet laws have been used to arrest Facebook users for posts critical of the government. And when it comes to Myanmar’s persecuted Rohingya Muslim minority and ethnic groups in the country, the government has been conspicuously silent in countering hate speech or proactively encouraging diverse voices to flourish.
“Myanmar’s opening has whet citizens’ appetite for freedoms denied for decades,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN. “The incoming government has its work cut out for it in terms of dismantling restrictions and ending the patterns of harassment and intimidation that continue to prevent the media from doing its job in holding authorities accountable. We call on the new leadership to recognize that a truly free environment for media and expression is not a threat to its power, but rather the best way to secure the democracy it has so long awaited.”
Unfinished Freedom provides a road map for the new government to strengthen free expression in Myanmar, calling on incoming leaders to solidify protections and guarantee political space for peaceful dissent as a healthy component of democracy. The report also charges political leaders, civil society organizations, and the international community to vocally advocate tolerance and reject hate speech, including among their own constituencies.
An abridged version of this report is also available in Burmese.
Founded in 1922, PEN American Center is an association of 4,200 US writers working to break down barriers to free expression worldwide.