Human Rights Watch urged Myanmar authorities to stop using criminal laws, website blocks, and licensing delays to severely restrict the two media outlets in Rakhine State and ensure access to information and press freedom in the embattled region.
Myanmar authorities have previously filed charges against Aung Marm Oo, chief editor of Development Media Group (DMG), under the Unlawful Associations Act, blocked access to its webpages, and failed to act on its application to renew the publishing license for its bimonthly print journal.
“The Myanmar authorities’ relentless harassment of ethnic Rakhine news outlets is an outrageous assault on media freedom and the right to information,” said Linda Lakhdhir, Asia legal adviser of Human Rights Watch.
“The authorities should immediately drop the baseless charges against DMG’s chief editor, renew the company’s publishing license, and unblock the websites of both DMG and Narinjara News.”
All four mobile operators in Myanmar have blocked DMG’s English and Burmese language websites since March 24 under a government directive issued by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
Narinjara News, the only other ethnic Rakhine media outlet, has also been blocked since March.
Human Rights Watch said fighting in Rakhine State and the increasing COVID-19 cases in the state capital, Sittwe, and surrounding areas, timely and accurate information about local conditions is crucial.
The rights group said the government’s restrictions on DMG and Narinjara News are an unjustifiable interference with media freedom and the right to information.
The general election scheduled for November 08, 2020, heightens concerns about the media blackout.
On May 01, 2019, Aung Marm Oo learned that the Myanmar police had filed charges against him under section 17(2) of the Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a penalty of up to five years in prison.
Aung Marm Oo, who has been in hiding since learning of the case, said that the police never provided him with any written notice detailing the grounds for the charges.
He believes the charges are linked to the media group’s legitimate reporting on the conflict between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army ethnic armed group.
On May 08, 2019, DMG sent a letter to the Myanmar Press Council, an independent body tasked with resolving disputes with the media, asking it to intervene in the case. The Press Council has yet to respond, the media group said.
Meanwhile, police have interrogated multiple members of Aung Marm Oo’s family and DMG employees.
The Myanmar government has repeatedly used draconian laws against journalists for reporting on military abuses or ethnic armed groups.
In 2018, two Reuters journalists were sentenced to seven years in prison under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act after uncovering a massacre of Rohingya Muslims. They were released on a presidential pardon after spending more than a year in jail. The two reporters won the Pulitzer Prize for their reporting on that story. (Source: HRW)