The Deteriorating Freedom of the Press – Myanmar’s Warning to the World

‘Anti-intellectualism’ is hostility directed at academics and thinkers, which can be poisonous to society due to how it allows academics to be scapegoated, and regimes can subsequently avoid political dissent by silencing and purging academics from society. However, this concept is not one that belongs solely to the past: it has taken on a new form which focuses chiefly on the targeting of journalists who write or think in a way contrary to that of the government or leader, who are often the focus of their articles and research. The challenging of the freedom of press and journalism is currently being echoed in the news, illustrating the dismantling of free media and an array of tools put to use by regimes and leaders against journalists. The role of investigation and research is under immense pressure, as the increasing violence and arrests against journalists in supposedly freer countries, such as Turkey, illustrates the present paradox of journalism: to choose between self-censoring their articles or to hope their work is not popular in order to avoid creating complications. But this raises the question: where is it safe to speak of any interpretation or topic without angst and apprehension? It is not easy to answer, but what is clear is that the gradual attrition of freedom of speech and press should be evocative in all our memories, as this issue is not limited to a few countries, but this erosion of basic discussion and analytical thought is becoming more widespread as time goes on.

The current situation in Myanmar demonstrates that the targeting of intellectuals and persons who expose the wrongdoings of those in power is still practised. There has been much outrage among human rights lawyers after the sudden arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, who were accused of breaking the country’s Official Secrets Legislation in December when reporting on a massacre of ten Rohingya Muslims in the Rakine state. Their findings revealed a wave of ethnic violence that is sweeping across Myanmar, hence why their trial has sparked such interest and has been named as a key moment in the history of Myanmar’s journey towards democracy. The case echoes the warnings of methods used by previous despotic regimes to gain further influence and spread distrust. What is clear is that these journalists were chiefly arrested for telling the truth, something the public has a right to hear but is being concealed, and those who know more than the government deems acceptable are silenced as traitors. But what does this issue illuminate? It says something about the government’s belief that they are above the law, and are untouchable enough to disregard and manipulate basic human rights and not be held accountable. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet claimed that the arrest was meant to send a message to all journalists in Myanmar that they must ‘make a choice to either self-censor or risk prosecution’ without a fair trial or having a chance to prove their innocence. However, what should really ring warning bells across the world is that the press and journalism are being overruled, which is the first step down a path of authoritarian rule whereby basic rights are ignored and innocent people can be turned into national traitors whenever the authorities deem it necessary.

Source: The Guardian

Many journalists and leaders of human rights movements have praised the research and actions of the two accused journalists, calling for their release and for their right to have a free trial. It is clear that their exposure of the military’s genocidal violence, such as the burning of villages, mass murder, and other atrocities, is in the public’s interest and the importance of this information being known is massive. It seems unimaginable that a genocide could be taking place within your own country and you might not even be aware due to the silencing of all those who do know. The value of freedom of expression in the press lies in the ability to circulate information and hold the authorities accountable; without this, one of the fundamental pillars of democracy crumbles. The irony however lies within the amount of effort that was taken to arrest and plant documentation on these two journalists, and yet no movement has taken place to put the military officers on trial for genocide, rape, and gross misconduct. And yet two reporters who have allegedly gone against the Official Secrets Legislation are worth the focus and attention of the police and chief judges, indicating that farcical scapegoating is perhaps being employed by the regime. The importance of whistle-blowers, like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, lies in their ability to keep the government in check and uncover information that has been hidden from public view, and without this reminder that authorities are not above the law, conflicts of interests and corruption are inaudible. But this case has not gone unnoticed; in particular, human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has agreed to fight for the release of these two Reuter journalists and has called immediately for a pardon to be issued.

Source: Bangkok Post

But why is it that intellectuals and those to whom the public look for information and guidance are the ones who are targeted by despotic regimes? The obvious answer would be that the power and influence that intellectuals are proclaimed to have endangers despotic regimes, but perhaps it is really the inherent threat they seem to represent of a free world; a prospect which despotic regimes wish to silence. Intellectuals prize discussion, debate, and not taking answers at face value, and these are all factors that authoritarian rulers and governments hope to abolish in order to enhance control and limit free discussion.

Another example of the recent targeting of academics is the dismissal and prosecution of intellectuals in Turkey. Since the coup in 2016, 5,800 academics have been dismissed from public universities. This is perhaps due to the critical thinking and deliberation that academics in schools and universities promote which the government seems to believe does more harm than good for their agenda. The Emergency Decrees used after the coup in 2016 illustrate this as they enabled dubious allegations to be made against academics on the grounds of terrorism and working against the government. On the other hand, the targeting of journalists and academics must be turned into a concrete effort to ensure these actions do not go unchallenged, because this is key to making sure that the perpetrators are held accountable in order to eliminate this culture of repression.

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