YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Myanmar is retightening its stranglehold on journalists to rein in negative coverage, but new restrictions on foreign journalists travelling to the country for reporting have “nothing to do” with international news stories about violence against Muslims and stateless Rohingya Muslims in western Rakhine state, the presidential spokesman said on Monday.
Unlike during the decades of military rule when most foreign journalists were forbidden entry, the government over the past few years has granted journalists carrying foreign passports visas that would allow them to enter the country several times over the span of three to six months to report.
However, more recently it has issued journalists visas allowing only a single entry and a one-month stay, while denying entry altogether to a Time reporter who wrote a cover story about a radical Buddhist monk linked to violence against Muslims.
Ye Htut, who regularly uses his Facebook page to announce government decisions, on Sunday wrote on Facebook that Time reporter Hannah Beech was denied a visa to attend a conference this week organised by the Hawaii-based East-West Center as her presence could lead to “unwanted consequences”. He did not elaborate.
While speaking on Monday at the opening of the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Yangon, Ye Htut said the change in visa rules came about after authorities learned that some 100 journalists had been working inside Myanmar for a year without informing the Ministry of Information, joining the Foreign Correspondent Club Myanmar or being employed by a news bureau.
“Our visa revisions have nothing to do with international news agencies reporting on the Du Chi Yar Tan violence,” Ye Htut said, referring to the alleged massacre in January of at least 40 stateless Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine state, which was first reported by foreign media despite official denials. “We know we cannot control media in the digital age.”
Since June 2012, the religious conflict across Myanmar has killed at least 240 people and displaced more than 140,000 - most of them Rohingya in Rakhine.
The government expelled Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) from Rakhine over accusations it is biased towards the Rohingya, and gave the green light to draft controversial laws that critics say are discriminatory.
After rights group Fortify Rights released a report last month that used leaked government documents to show systematic discrimination against the Rohingya, Ye Htut retorted that he refused to “comment on baseless accusations from a Bengali lobby group”.
Myanmar has come a long way since the days of the military dictatorship when every song, book, cartoon, news story and piece of art required approval by censors working for a board known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.
This direct media censorship was abolished in August 2012, but challenges such as pervasive self-censorship remain.
Ye Htut insisted that Myanmar’s much-lauded reforms, including media reforms that are being increasingly questioned, are “irreversible”, and that foreign reporters hired to work in Myanmar for news agencies with bureaus in the country could still receive six-month visas.
“So it doesn’t mean a rollback of the reform process but something like an adjustment,” he told the audience of journalists.
“There is no turning back. The only way is moving forward…Yes, during the last year we made mistakes. We’re not perfect,” he said. “But we have a clear vision of the new Myanmar. We have reform strategy and most importantly we have the political will to implement it.”
Still, concerned national and international media point to the arrest of journalists for disclosing “state secrets”, the selective barring of media from press events, alleged interference with reporting and the visa restrictions.
“They are currently writing many laws including publication laws and broadcast laws,” Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist who edits the English-language Myanmar Freedom Daily, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “More laws mean more control.”