Press Freedom

Faced with state repression, journalists in Myanmar push back strongly

Over the last three years, the military and civilian administrators have gone after journalists in a manner reminiscent of the erstwhile military junta.

When Myanmar began its transition into a democracy in 2011 and elected a civilian administration in 2016 through free and fair polls, one of the debutants in the country’s new socio-political landscape was the free press.

During the dark days of the military junta, the media was either largely censored at home or operated in exile. This meant that the state operated with impunity with little accountability to the citizenry. But democracy brought along the promise of an uncensored media environment wherein journalists could freely report from inside the country, comment on state affairs without the threat of censorship, and directly liaise between the state and society. In fact, a crucial component of the transition process was capacity-building of the local media. This saw international journalists being flown in to train their local counterparts. A dynamic domestic press – one that is fiercely critical of the state and refuses to toe any party line – has now emerged in Myanmar.

However, all is not well with the fourth estate in the country. Over the last three years, both the military and civilian administrators in the country have gone after journalists in a manner reminiscent of the erstwhile military government. A detailed timeline of all such instances is available here. Things worsened recently, with an uptick in the frequency of legal charges being brought against journalists. For instance, in June, six reporters were detained – three each in two separate incidents – and in May, the chief editor of a newspaper was arrested in connection with a defamation case. Despite this, the Burmese media has refused to cower, and has responded firmly.

Journalists mobilise

Since early June, local journalists have been mobilising to defend their constitutional rights and put pressure on the government to immediately revoke the charges against detained journalists. The ultimate aim is to repeal Article 66(d) of the country’s Telecommunications Law, which relates to defamation.

Several prominent journalists have come together to establish a collective called the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, which is now the nodal point for civil society mobilisation. It organised its first rally on June 8 during which 100 reporters stood outside a Yangon court in the rain, wearing “Freedom of Press” armbands. The news agency Reuters called it the “first significant show of opposition to the telecommunications law”.

In the second round of demonstrations, a signature campaign against the defamation law was organised. One event related to it was planned near Yangon Region Military Command on June 23. However, the local government banned it, forcing the organisers to shift venues.

The demonstrations sharpened after the June 26 detention of three reporters by the army in Shan State under the unlawful association law. The following day, 25 local media groups wrote to Burmese President Htin Kyaw, terming the detention as “restricting and censoring the press” and demanding their immediate release.

On June 30, the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists organised a third round of demonstrations outside Yangon City Hall where the chief editor of The Voice Daily newspaper, who was arrested in May for airing a satirical play on the army, is being tried. The protestors demanded the immediate release of the detained journalists. At the event, members of the collective spotted a member of the military in plainclothes taking photographs of the journalists attending the protest, following which they filed a complaint with the police in accordance with the newly-enacted Protecting the Privacy and Security of Citizens law.

However, on July 6, the local police rejected the complaint, arguing that the accused serviceman had not violated any law. The journalists now plan to sue the police officers who dismissed the complaints, alleging that they had overstepped their mandate by taking a judicial matter into their own hands.

A Burmese reporter protests against the detention of reporters in Myanmar, on June 30. Photo credit: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
A Burmese reporter protests against the detention of reporters in Myanmar, on June 30. Photo credit: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

While the episode is a throwback to the days of the junta when state surveillance of private citizens, especially dissenters, was commonplace, it also reflects a significant shift in Burmese civil society’s relationship with the state. Unlike earlier, citizens are steadily shedding their apprehensions and confronting state authorities head-on, paving the way for a new social contract.

Colonial-era laws

The innumerable complaints and lawsuits filed by the military against civil society actors in the past two years make it clear that it is unprepared to handle criticism, which was dealt with firmly during junta rule. This reflects the paradox of Burma’s new democracy, wherein a disproportionately powerful military continues to influence the state apparatus despite the existence of a popularly-elected government.

However, a graver and more structural issue is the continued survival of repressive laws that were used by both Myanmar’s colonial occupiers and the military junta to crush dissent. These laws – for instance, defamation and unlawful association – are now being used by a bigger coterie of state actors within a constitutionally legitimised environment.

For the moment at least, the pressure from journalists in the country appears to have spurred the civilian government into some corrective action. On July 6, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi announced that the Burmese Parliament is “considering amendments to that particular [defamation] law”. However, its exact contours remain unclear. While a total repeal of the law cannot be expected given the civilian administration’s precarious relationship with the military, which strongly favours the law, an amendment to render the offence into a bailable one may be on the cards.

Further, on July 7, U Shwe Mann, chairman of the Union Parliament Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, said that changes to the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act need to be considered.

Although Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, can play a central role in repealing or reforming these outdated laws owing to its parliamentary majority, it remains to be seen if the civilian leadership can stare the military down on such issues.

Angshuman Choudhury is researcher and coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.