Reporters, Rohingya and Regionalism: Myanmar’s Emerging and Intractable Triple Human Rights Threat

“I believe in equality for everyone, except reporters and photographers.”  Issued partially in jest, Mahatma Ghandi’s declaration echoes serious attitudes of states, non-governmental groups and publics around the globe.  Journalists, who ferret out the world’s sordid secrets, deserve some reciprocal skepticism from society.  They also deserve their human rights.Temporal limitlessness and contextual diversity make mitigating attacks on the press an intractable challenge.  Reporters chase conflict; after facing human rights abuse in one strife-ridden region, they scurry to cover the next treacherous war zone.  Of course, not all media-directed violence occurs in battle.  Diverse stakeholders threaten reporters in unique ways.  In the Philippines and the U.S., reporters face verbal attacks by chief executives.  In Mexico, governmental actors order their executions.  In the Middle East, militant groups murder media workers with impunity.No strategy can successfully neutralize every threat to the press.  Examining the case of two Reuters reporters recently detained in Myanmar indicates how regional circumstances, actor agendas and legal loopholes uniquely conspire to endanger human rights and journalists’ lives. 

Reuters journalist Wa Lone, center, talks to journalists as he leaves the court after his trial Wednesday, March 7, 2018, on the outskirts of Yangon, Myanmar. Trial hearing resumed for two Reuters journalists charged of violating state secrets. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were arrested Dec. 12 for acquiring “important secret papers” from two policemen. (AP Photo/Thein Zaw)
Last December, authorities in Yangon arrested Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo for “illegally acquir[ing] information with the intention to share it with foreign media” in violation of Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act.  Though all cases of reporter-directed violence are dual human rights threats, this situation’s implications are particularly severe.  It may be a triple human rights threat, affecting the lives of a marginalized ethnic group, the rights of the public to information and the freedoms of journalists.First, the reporters were apparently targeted for investigating the slaughter of Muslim Rohingya in predominantly-Buddhist Myanmar.  Their report, published in February, describes the executions of 10 men by government soldiers and civilians.  Rohingya ethnic cleansing threatens—if it has not already—to devolve into genocide.  Though the Genocide Convention requires the international community to prevent such atrocities, it has done relatively little.Regional responses to the resultant refugee crisis may be more alarming than this inaction.  Bangladesh has denied Rohingya entry at its border with Myanmar, maintained they “illegally infiltrated” its territory and suggested housing refugees on a “remote, flood-prone island.”  Both Bangladesh and Thailand have proven hotbeds for trafficking of vulnerable Rohingya women; desperate to escape persecution, they become victims of transnational slavery networks.  Given global and regional governance failures, reporters like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—who catalyze civil society awareness and action—are crucial human rights defenders. 

Second, the Official Secrets Act, enacted during British colonial rule, weaponizes knowledge.  It makes distributing information—journalists’ central mission—criminal.   This impedes media protection of the public’s right to knowledge.  In Myanmar, “80 to 90 percent of government documents were considered confidential or secret under the Official Secrets Act,” according to press advocate U Myint Kyaw.  Regional neighbors Pakistan, India, Singapore and Malaysia—also former British colonies—have similar legislation.  Thus, journalists throughout Asia are susceptible to arrest for what they know.

Third, of course, this situation violates Wa Lone’s and Kyaw Soe Oo’s human rights.  Denied pre-trial bail, they face sentences of up to 14 years.  As if being detained for illuminating ethnic cleansing was not sufficiently egregious, they may sustain further abuse in custody.  A 2016 Reuters investigation found systematic mistreatment, including forced labor and corporal punishment, in Myanmar’s prison camps.

A Rohingya refugee Muslim who was staying in no-man’s land at Bandarban between Myanmar and Bangladesh border, sits with her belongings after arriving at Balukhali refugee camp 50 kilometres (32 miles) from, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. Rohingya Muslims who fled persecution in Myanmar say some of them had returned home several times over past decades, and they’re in no mood to repatriate again. Although, Myanmar says it’s ready for a gradual repatriation of Muslim Rohingya refugees chased out by the Buddhist-majority country’s military. More than 680,000 Rohingya Muslims are now living in sprawling and squalid refugee camps in Bangladesh. (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)
These human rights concerns are embedded in a web of stakeholder interests and regional factors.  To start, Myanmar’s government appears intent on masking all levels of abuse.  Despite replacing a general who oversaw anti-Rohingya operations, the military “exonerated security forces of all accusations of atrocities” in November.  It also labeled forced displacement of Rohingya—a human rights violation—a crucial security measure.  This is particularly concerning given Myanmar’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  In a region mired in abuses and with neighboring states on the verge of dictatorship, she should be a valuable force for justice.  Instead, her relative silence on Rohingya atrocities is deafening.Myanmar has a checkered past regarding press freedoms.  According to CNN, “an anti-defamation clause in [Malaysia’s] telecommunications law [is] often used to quash opposition voices” and usually results in convictions.  Nearby Cambodia and the Philippines, where authorities have shuttered media outlets and advocated killing reporters, are unlikely to pressure change.  The government’s press-directed antagonism is clear in its potential framing of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, invocation of the Official Secrets Act and refusal of bond before a courtroom audience of foreign journalists and officials.The Western international political community has strongly defended Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.  Its interests—freedom of the press and defense of human rights—directly oppose Myanmar’s.  Surprisingly, the latter stakeholder may actually have the upper hand.  The United Nations’ charter emphasizes a principle of non-intervention, and human rights theory is closely tied to the idea of self-determination.  Citing the Genocide Convention, regional and international actors could forcefully oppose Rohingya genocide, if only—like Bangladesh—to avoid responsibility for refugees.  However, they are largely unable, if not unwilling, to intervene in the country’s press-directed violence.  Framing the arrests of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo as a human rights issue has little impact. 

Myanmar ratified the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to education.  However, it is not party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which protects freedom of expression.  Thus, though the government recognizes the effect of journalism—education—as a human right, it does not recognize the act itself as one.  Knowledge is protected but collecting it is not.  Despite regional human rights abuse, support for these covenants is theoretically high across Southeast Asia.  Still, this has little—if any—practical impact within sovereign Myanmar.

A third non-victim stakeholder group is the journalism community.  Numerous media groups have spoken out in support of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.  A statement by 50 Pulitzer Prize winners called the men “brave, principled and professional journalists who were working in the public interest and were jailed simply for doing their jobs.”  Meanwhile, press associations across Asia launched a Change.org petition with over 40,000 signatures.

Unfortunately, an attack on one reporter is an assault on every journalist.  These arrests reinforce the acceptability of media-directed violence in Myanmar, across Southeast Asia and around the world.  By legalizing state press-targeting, unjust Official Secrets Acts fuel a regional culture of impunity for violating journalists’ human rights.  Between 2012 and 2014, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance noted 100 or more instances in which abusers faced no repercussions.

Ultimately, the fates of Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo lie with stakeholders either unable or unwilling to act in their favor.  Human rights law constrains the international political community’s intervening abilities.  This may matter little to Myanmar’s abusive regional neighbors, which may support its actions.  The media is unlikely to earn state respect in negotiations.  Finally, public beneficiaries of this journalism may be similarly terrorized by Myanmar’s government or complicit in its aggression.  Both military and civilians are slaughtering Rohingya and benefit from suppression of media coverage.

As in most cases of press-directed violence, complex contextual factors—including regional attitudes, stakeholder interests and legal loopholes—jeopardize human rights promotion.  Yet, this remains as crucial as ever, particularly given the triple threat of Wa Lone’s and Kyaw Soe Oo’s detainment.

Amelia Cheatham is a T’18 Alumna and was a 2017-2018 Global Human Rights Scholar for the Institute. 

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