Country Focus – Myanmar

Myanmar’s military launched a coup against the government in power and its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on February 1, bringing an end to the hard-won decade-old democracy in the Southeast Asian country. The junta, led by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, has forced the country to be under military regime for the next one year -a move that has prompted rallies and protests by the people opposing the military rule and the overthrow of the government. 

Ever since the coup and the arrest of several officials of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party including Suu Kyi, the country has been in a state of unrest. The NLD had won the majority in the November 2020 election, which was contested by the military-backed opposition. According to a Vox article, the military’s fear of losing “ultimate authority” over Myanmar might have triggered the coup.

Military forces have reportedly killed at least 700 civilians so far. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), an international human rights group, has said that the junta has detained around 3300 people, out of which 76 of them have been sentenced. 

The junta’s rampant crackdown on anti-coup protesters and journalists, disruption of the internet and other communication services, and the murder of children have been condemned by human rights organisations worldwide. Reports term the military’s takeover as an “end to the quasi-democracy” in the country. 

A coup; a democracy snatched

The ongoing protests in Myanmar mirror the uprising of ‘88 – a definitive year for Burma (what Myanmar was called back then). It was a period marked by a series of nationwide protests against harsh military dictatorship, restricted freedom, and poor economic opportunities. The military, however, ended the uprising with a severe crackdown on demonstrators and a fickle promise of democratic elections, which eventually happened two years later. 

In 1990, Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory in the elections. But the military refused to hand over power to the party and placed Suu Kyi in detention for 20 years and continued with what some call a “disciplined democracy.” A new constitution, which allotted 25% of the seats to the military, was adopted in 2008. 

Consequently, in the 2015 general elections, Suu Kyi won the majority and her party was elected to power. Myanmar’s recognition among other countries, particularly the West, grew – sanctions were lifted, and opportunities improved. Although the country was being led by a democratically elected government, the military’s shadow was always perceived to be behind it. This was apparent went Suu Kyi, put on trial for the Rohingya genocide in 2017, defended the killings of the minority groups by security forces. 

The day of the coup, February 1, was supposed to be the first session of the parliament after Suu Kyi’s NLD was reelected to power and set to start its second term. However, the military made sure it did not happen. BBC quotes Aye Min Thant, a former journalist, as saying “there may be another reason for today’s action: embarrassment on the part of the military.”

Media Freedom Violations

Following the coup, the military also inflicted extensive damage on Myanmar’s media. Licenses of five independent media outlets – Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Khit Thit Media, Myanmar Now and 7Day News, all of which reported on anti-coup protests – were revoked. 

“Revoking the license of independent media outlets that have been providing vital information about ongoing events in the country is a draconian measure that amounts to direct censorship and breaches fundamental rights and international standards, to which Myanmar has committed”, Barbara Trionfi, Executive Director, International Press Institute, said.

On February 27, six journalists – one Associated Press journalist, one freelancer, and four journalists working for Myanmar media – were arrested for covering anti-coup demonstrations and charged under sections that could have them in jail for upto three years if convicted. 

The junta attempted to stifle all critical voices by arresting dozens of public figures – actors, models, social media influencers, and so on. Actor Paing Takhon, who has a huge online following, and beauty blogger Win Min Than were detained by security forces. Takhon was said to have participated in protests. 

The Guardian reported that the military has been publishing the names and photographs of popular figures in daily wanted lists on TV and in the state-run newspaper. 

The police charged Wai Moe Naing, a prominent opposition leader, for murder, unlawful assembly, wrongful confinement, abduction with intent to murder, and incitement. 

More recently, Danny Fenster, an American journalist and the Managing Editor of Frontier Manipur, was detained from the Yangon airport shortly before he was due to board a flight to Kuala Lumpur. 

According to reports, at least 83 journalists have been arrested since the coup on February 1. 

Also read:

Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar democracy icon who fell from grace

As Myanmar Opens Up, A Look Back On A 1988 Uprising

Images from a ‘Day of Shame’ in Myanmar

‘She Just Fell Down. And She Died.’

Country Focus – Yemen

Country Focus – Poland

Country Focus – Yemen

Yemen, a war-ridden Middle Eastern country, is widely labeled as the nation with the worst humanitarian crisis by human rights organisations around the world. Since the end of Arab Spring, the country has been in a free fall with respect to socioeconomic indicators following a failed political transition from Ali Abdullah Saleh to Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, who is the current Yemeni president. 

Free speech and media freedom have also taken a hit in Yemen’s polarised and volatile political climate, which is a result of continual power struggle between Saudi-led forces – who are Hadi supporters – and the rebel Houthis, a Shia muslim minority group that is now in control of the capital city Sanaa. 

Freedom House, an organisation that advocates for democracy and human rights, said in a 2016 report that Houthi forces carried out dozens of raids on media outlets and detentions of journalists in 2015 in an attempt to suppress dissent. 

The Civil War and its Effect on Human Rights & Press Freedom

According to the World Press Freedom Index, an annual list compiled by the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom rank of Yemen stood at 167 out of 180 countries in 2020. The rank has been stagnant since the outbreak of the war in 2014. 

The Freedom House report notes that although historically state-backed press was dominant in the country, “production and distribution for all media outlets was impeded in 2015 by lack of security, damage to infrastructure, and shortages of electricity and basic supplies like fuel as a result of the conflict.”

A more recent report from Freedom House, which labelled Yemen “Not Free”, says that the war has made Yemen more dangerous for journalists, who endure violent attacks and enforced disappearances from all sides in the conflict. 

Since then, various parties involved in the ongoing civil war have reportedly taken control of the media, leaving no room for “neutral” reporting. While local journalists were said to have been routinely targeted, independent and foreign journalists too were prevented from reporting or entering the country. 

The seemingly-unending conflict between Houthis and Saudi-led forces has led to extreme poverty and famine. According to the United Nations, tens of thousands of people have either died or injured, and around 3.3 million remain displaced. In addition to crackdowns on the media, journalists are also forced to grapple with poor economic conditions. 

Media Freedom Violations

Four of nine journalists, arrested in 2015 on charges of “spying” and “spreading false news and rumours,” were sentenced to death penalty by a court in the Houthi-led capital Sanaa in 2020. This sparked major international outcry and condemnations. Over 150 human rights and press freedom organisations called to overturn the death sentences of the four journalists – Abdel-Khaleq Amran, Akram al-Walidi, Hareth Hamid, and Tawfiq al-Mansouri. 

The Media Freedom Coalition’s Executive Group representing Canada, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States of America, called on the Houthis to disavow their decision of putting the four journalists to death, free all other detained journalists, and refrain from undermining media freedom. 

Al Jazeera quoted Khalid Ibrahim, Executive Director, Gulf Centre for Human Rights as saying, “the charges against the journalists are fabricated. They were just doing their jobs as journalists.”

The other five journalists arrested along with them reported their account of the abuse and torture they faced in prison. 

“They denied us food for several days, and sometimes denied us using bathrooms for 24 hours. We were exposed to different forms of physical and psychological torture while we were being interrogated in addition to being threatened to be placed in an armoury, so that we’d be killed by a Saudi-led coalition airstrike, a method the Houthis have used to kill our collegaues Abdullah Qabel and Yousif Al Aizari earlier,” said an unofficial spokesperson of the five released journalists. 

 

In September 2020, Adel Al-Hasani, a Yemeni journalist who has contributed to international news outlets such as BBC, CNN, and Vice, was reportedly detained by authorities after he helped two international journalists detained while covering the war, according to a recent report published by HuffPost. The report also hinted at the involvement of US-linked forces.

“Al-Hasani’s situation implicates the U.S., which is already tied to hundreds of alleged war crimes in Yemen and yet purports to shield press freedom around the world,” said the report. 

RSF notes that 278 journalists and 112 media assistants are currently imprisoned in Yemen. 

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a global media freedom organisation, 22 journalists have been killed in Yemen since 1992.  

Also read:

Yemen: Human rights violations against journalists, coming ‘from all quarters’

Yemen’s Tragedy: War, Stalemate, and Suffering

Why the press struggles to cover the war in Yemen

Country Focus – Poland