Welcome, everybody, to our session on the global state of the free press. This particular meeting is focused on Myanmar.
We have two witnesses with us, both by teleconference.
The first is Ko Ko Naing from the Los Angeles Rohingya Association. He's a founding member of that association and serves as its community and public relations manager. He is Rohingya, and he claimed political asylum in the United States and became an American citizen in 2010.
Also with us is Daniel Bastard, head of the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders.
He will be testifying today. He has more than 15 years of experience in diverse media in Europe, the Americas and Asia.
We will ask each of you to give your remarks, starting with Monsieur Bastard.
Mr. Bastard, the floor is yours for 10 minutes, after which, we will move into the question and answer portion.
Thank you for caring about this issue.
I head up the Asia-Pacific desk at Reporters Without Borders, a non-governmental organization whose mission is to defend freedom of information around the world. One of our main advocacy tools is the World Press Freedom Index, which we compile every year for 180 countries.
In 2018, Myanmar was ranked 137th out of 180 countries. In October, we issued what we call an index alert in relation to Myanmar's 2019 ranking. According to several of the indicators we use to measure freedom of the press in each country, we noted a troubling decline.
First, on the media independence indicator, we noted issues involving investigative journalists. Of course, I am referring to the cases of Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been rotting in prison for 14 months. Their only crime is to have investigated the massacre of 10 Rohingya civilians in a village in the Arakan state in September 2017, during the wave of repression that forced nearly a million Rohingyas to flee to Bangladesh.
This ethnic cleansing, in the words of the UN, was completely hidden from the media. The two Reuters journalists were courageous enough to investigate the situation with professionalism, gathering personal accounts, evidence and documentation until the night police entrapped and arrested them. Two officers handed them mysterious documents out of the blue, after which two other officers immediately arrested them for being in possession of state secrets.
Despite being a gross set-up, the incident did not stop the justice system from trying the two journalists on charges of violating a colonial-era law on state secrets. The prosecution that followed was nothing more than a charade.
In April, the military actually acknowledged the massacre the journalists had been investigating. A military court even convicted seven soldiers for their involvement. The journalists, however, remain in prison. One of the officers who took part in their arrest admitted before the court that the two journalists had indeed been framed by police. What did that officer get for blowing the whistle on the journalists' arrest? A prison sentence for disobeying the chain of command. His fellow officer, scheduled to testify the next day, mysteriously went missing.
The entire investigation was an appalling display of hypocrisy. From the farcical circumstances under which the journalists were taken in by police and the fabrication of so-called incriminating evidence to the staging of photos while in police custody and the pressure exerted on witnesses during the preliminary hearing, absolutely nothing holds water. Nevertheless, down came the hammer in September 2018, when the journalists were formally sentenced to seven years in prison. The verdict was upheld by an appeal court in December. A second appeal, this time before the Supreme Court, was filed about two weeks ago, but given the judiciary's total lack of independence in the matter, there is little chance of the country's Supreme Court judges overturning the original verdict.
Such a blatant violation of freedom of the press in a country said to be on the path towards democracy is astonishing.
Perhaps the police, judicial and political apparatus went after the journalists with such zeal as a way for Aung San Suu Kyi's civilian government to placate the military and Buddhist fundamentalists in connection with this notorious persecution of the Muslim Rohingya minority.
One detail, in particular, is worth noting: the relative speed with which the Burmese justice system dealt with the journalists' appeal. The republic's president, an ally of Aung San Suu Kyi, has the power to grant pardons under the constitution. Some observers have speculated that he might pardon the two Reuters journalists for the Burmese new year in April—a tradition in the country. In order for that to happen, however, any possibility of appeal must be exhausted, which could explain why the journalists' case was handled with such unexpected haste.
That scenario would give the civilian authorities a chance to make a show of clemency towards the journalists after upholding their convictions, and allow the military and Buddhist nationalists to save face. Consequently, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo could rejoin their families, but a chilling message would have been sent to other journalists: this is what will happen to you if you dare to investigate subjects that are off limits.
The other extremely worrisome aspect, when it comes to Myanmar's deteriorating freedom of the press, is the rise of self-censorship in journalistic writing. Journalists now know that they are opening themselves up to military reprisal if they cover, among other things, the situation in the Arakan state, which, the UN characterized as a genocide of the Muslim Rohingya population.
Generally speaking, many journalists no longer dare to cover subjects that might offend the Buddhist majority and, especially, the more extremist elements. One of the journalists Reporters Without Borders is helping told me that himself. We are providing him with legal support further to his prosecution for criticizing, in an article, the hate speech of the fundamentalist Buddhist monk Ashin Wirathu, who has become rather famous since Time magazine referred to him as the “face of Buddhist terror” on one of its covers a few years ago.
What, then, is the reporter accused of? Like many other reporters in Myanmar, he is being prosecuted under section 66(d) of the country's telecommunications law. It's a rather vague and poorly written provision that essentially makes it a crime to defame someone. What that means, in practical terms, is that no matter how airtight and well-sourced a reporter's investigation is—no matter how overwhelming the supporting evidence—the reporter is making themselves a probable target for a complaint under the law by anyone mentioned in the article. The law serves as the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of investigative journalists. As recently as October, three other reporters spent 15 days behind bars simply for covering an affair involving a government contract in the city of Yangon.
Cases involving censorship and self-censorship can have far-reaching consequences. For instance, the authorities have even prohibited use of the term “Rohingya” in the media, and outlets that defy the edict are threatened with closure. In June, the Radio Free Asia network was banned from the country for refusing to use the term “Bengali” instead of “Rohingya”, as the government demands. Use of the word “Bengali” suggests that the Rohingya population will not be integrated into Myanmar's territory, and that is precisely the vision the authorities want to impose.
It is also important to know that, on the other side of the country, in the northeast, the journalistic landscape is equally as hostile. The recent escalation in conflict between the military and rebel groups in the Shan and Kachin states has resulted in reporters being unable to cover vast areas controlled by the military. Those who dare to go there are met with serious threats and sometimes reprisals by belligerents.
There you have it: a brief overview of where freedom of the press currently stands in Myanmar, which will likely drop even lower on the World Press Freedom Index Reporters Without Borders will be putting out in April. It's quite telling to see how the situation has evolved over the long term since Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, came to power in the 2012 election. At the time, the country saw a radical shift, as media publications proliferated given that reporters stopped living in constant fear of being arrested for their work. The country went from 151st place on the World Press Freedom Index in 2013 to 131st place in 2017, moving up 20 spots in four years. The problem, however, is that, in 2008, the country again started to drop in the rankings, losing six spots.
In light of what I've just said and what's transpired over the past year, there is strong reason to believe that the situation is, in fact, a genuine reversal of the trend, not just an aberration. That is all the more worrisome since Aung San Suu Kyi, the current head of the government, has done nothing to stand up for the Reuters journalists. That speaks volumes about the bumpy and winding road that Myanmar must travel to address freedom of the press and complete its transition to democracy.
In giving my testimony, I would like to thank the Canadian government for playing a huge role in ending the Rohingya crisis. As you know, the Rohingya crisis is a global crisis. On behalf of the Rohingya community, I would like to thank the Canadian government and the Canadian people for playing a proactive role in ending the Rohingya crisis.
As my fellow journalist mentioned, after Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948, there were only a few years of civilian rule. When dictator General Ne Win took over in 1962, the country was very isolated. There was no freedom of speech. A lot of journalists were imprisoned. The Official Secrets Act of 1923 was used to convict the Reuters journalists.
Journalists have been jailed, I believe for more than 15 years. The authorities used that law. The law was actually made by General Ne Win, so that law has been around. There are so many other journalists who are missing, so this is nothing new. The Reuters journalists were just recently, but prior to that, a lot of journalists went missing.
I don't know whether you are familiar with Burma VJ. It was made by Norwegian and Burmese citizens. They were in exile in Norway. They went during the Saffron Revolution, I believe in 2006, to show what democracy is in Burma. I watched the documentary, Burma VJ, and it shows how the Burmese government used informants to jail innocent citizens. A lot of innocent citizens have been jailed and randomly questioned just for going against the government. There's a large online movement, but still there's no improvement for journalists. There's no freedom of the press in Burma at all.
There are many Rohingya citizen journalists in exile overseas, in neighbouring countries like Thailand, Malaysia and the U.S. I am a citizen journalist. I report whatever news I get. I get news from the underground, from Rakhine State, from my network. We have managed to get some news about the Rohingya crisis that is going on in Rakhine State. Those citizen journalists are in a very risky position. Some of them have been arrested in Rakhine State and have not been released. To my knowledge, two of my contacts have been arrested and have not been released yet.
There are numerous Rohingya citizen journalists around the world, because we are trying to highlight the crisis. There's no freedom of speech in Burma. At this time in Burma, if you go in the street to do a protest, you can be arrested at any time. The government is using the democracy to fool the world.
Unfortunately, we all advocated for Aung San Suu Kyi to be a democratic leader for all, but she has shown her true colours. She's not speaking up for the Rohingya or about ethnic minorities. She's with the Burmese government. The Burmese government has been notoriously known to carry out genocidal acts, not just on the Rohingya community, but on various other communities like the Karen, Shan and other minorities. Many innocent citizens have been killed, and the Burmese government uses propaganda to spread fake news and brainwash the Burmese public.
The term “Rohingya” is a very taboo term in Burma. If anyone is caught using that term, they could be subject to arrest. Even the local news media avoids it. In public, if anyone uses the word, an informant will hear it and you will be arrested. They want the public to use the word “Bengali”, for illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. They'll use that word. A lot of defamation weapons have been used by the Burmese government to arrest random citizens.
There is no guarantee of a fair trial. The judiciary is not independent of the central government, and the government can arrest anyone at any time. The current Burmese government is notoriously known to have a newspaper called The Global New Light of Myanmar. That newspaper spreads fake news about the Rohingya crisis, calling the Rohingya “terrorists”. They've been using that to spread fake news.
Social media, especially Facebook, plays a huge role. Facebook is also very responsible for the Rohingya genocide, the Rohingya crisis. The Burmese government and the Burmese public use that tool to spread hate speech and propaganda to wipe out the Rohingya and to justify the killing of the Rohingya in Rakhine and other states too. As you guys know, Reuters journalists were recently jailed and convicted because of their reporting on the massacre of innocent Rohingya in 2017. This is one example of how the Burmese government has used the Official Secrets Act of 1923 to arrest innocent journalists just for reporting the truth.
There are also laws restricting the use of the Internet. Burmese citizens are not allowed to speak against or criticize the Burmese government or talk about the Rohingya crisis at all. If any citizen in Burma got caught reporting the news about the Rohingya or being against the government, they would be subject to arrest and be subject to a fine. They might also be isolated. As I mentioned earlier, to my knowledge, two of my contacts have been arrested in Rakhine state. As of now, I have no news about them. I used to receive news from sources on the ground in Rakhine state about the Rohingya crisis. They were arrested two years ago, and ever since I have not received any contact from them.
The Burmese government also uses a lot of undercover government informants in public places, particularly in tea shops and restaurants, to spy on its citizens. Anyone caught talking about the Rohingya crisis or talking against the Burmese government will be arrested. A lot of activists have been banned from going into Burma. There's a blacklist and visa ban on international journalists and activists just for reporting on the Rohingya crisis or for criticizing the government. There's absolutely no freedom of speech and freedom of the press at all in Burma. Sadly, even after Burma's rocky path to democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi is not doing anything to restore freedom of the press in Burma, or even giving journalists access to Rakhine on the Rohingya crisis.
I would say that the Burmese government is trying to lie to the world. They are trying to cover up the killing of innocent Rohingya citizens. We have to get a lot of news from our trusted contacts on the ground. Some of the contacts had no choice but to flee to neighbouring Bangladesh. Their lives were at risk for reporting the news about the Rohingya crisis.
There's a lot of hate speech and fake news going on in social media, these days on Facebook, especially sponsored by the Burmese government. There's also the “969” nationalist movement, which is also sponsored by the Burmese government. They have been trying to spread ongoing hate speech against the Rohingya. Their ultimate goal is to wipe out the Rohingya entirely from Burma—you know, a “Make Burma Buddhist” nationalist movement. It's kind of like a repeat of the Holocaust in 1942, when Hitler attempted to wipe out the Jews. We Rohingya have been displaced all over the world because of this crisis. There is no freedom of the press. The truth is that a lot of citizen journalists report on what's going on, and thank God for that, because we manage to know what the Burmese government is doing—notoriously imprisoning innocent citizens and isolating their citizens just for speaking the truth.
On that note, the Canadian government and western nations have to play a huge role, and not just by sanctioning the government. Maybe they should try isolating Burma further by not giving them any rewards. There's absolutely no freedom of the press in Burma. There's no freedom of expression. Anyone can get arrested at any time, for no reason.
Thank you very much, Chair.
There's a lot that concerns me in both of our witnesses' testimonies. I'd particularly like to focus on Mr. Naing's testimony.
Mr. Naing, you mentioned that there's purposeful use of Facebook by the government of Burma to spread hate. I'm wondering if you would be able to send some examples of that to this committee—I don't think we have the translation capability that you might have in your network—so that we could have that as evidence.
Chair, I would ask that we would be able to accept those documents as evidence.
This is profoundly concerning. There's a special committee right now in the U.K. that's taking a look—I forget the official name of it, but it's called the fake news committee. They actually came out with some findings that Facebook is purposefully very sophisticated, so that you cannot search through and find out who the perpetrator of hate is.
If the Myanmar government is doing that, then we should be able to maybe point that out. If I could ask the researchers to piggy back on some of the work the U.K. committee is doing and make sure that we point out that it's being used for this kind of thing.
Mr. Naing, would that be possible? Would you be able to do that for us?
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Thank you to the witnesses for coming here today and for your advocacy in raising your voices and shedding some light on the silence, in the case of many of these journalists, coming out of Myanmar.
My question will first be for Mr. Naing.
I was reading recently an article in The Guardian that talked about two particular journalists who were arrested. Their names were Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe O. They were accused of passing secret documents to other sources. That's what they were convicted of by the judge. There was, however, an outcry. Their lawyer said they would try any means necessary to get their acquittal. Many other countries, freedom press advocates, and the UN, the EU, the U.S. and Canada have called for the acquittal of both.
In the courts there has been this judgment against them, and they have allegedly.... I'm sorry; I'm lost for words here. They've been tried in a court, and the government has said they've been passing secret documents. This is pretty typical of what has been happening with journalists like this.
Has the advocacy by many states internationally for their acquittal put more pressure on the Myanmar government, or has there been more reluctance so that there hasn't seen a big push for their acquittal?
Thank you for those two questions.
Regarding the private press, we don’t really have any large corporations or powerful press magnates as there are in western countries or other Asian countries. We have, instead, small publications that basically depend on advertising and are mono-industrial, in that they are only involved in media such as magazines, dailies or radio. Our regional press is somewhat developed. But all of these structures are still very weak and would need, notably, greater financial assistance. This would allow them to be more viable in the future. Perhaps Parliament and the Canadian government could consider providing support to them.
I will give you a very concrete example. Of course, financial or trade sanctions can be imposed on Myanmar, but you have to see whether this affects the population more than the government. That is why we are considering, together with other non-governmental organizations, having certain cases tried under the famous Magnitski law. That law was first introduced in the United States, but other countries have enacted similar laws. It would make it possible to really target those who are responsible for repressing freedom of the press, through the use of visas and the seizure of their assets abroad. Many of them, however, have assets in China, which complicates things considerably. Despite that, a message can be sent. If we can seize the assets of the leaders, of those who are in command and who make the decision to curtail freedom of the press, we could make people think.