Myanmar freedom of speech under threat amid Rakhine violence: monitors

November 4, 2016 1:03 PM EDT

British ambassador to Myanmar Andrew Patrick (C) and members of a diplomatic mission arrive at a news conference at Sittwe airport after a trip to the Maungdaw areas in northern Rakhine State in Myanmar November 3, 2016. REUTERS/Wa Lone


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YANGON (Reuters) - Human rights monitors have raised concerns about press freedom in Myanmar after a journalist at an English-language newspaper said she was fired following government criticism of her reporting of allegations of rape by soldiers.

Violence in the north of troubled Rakhine State, which began with deadly attacks on border police posts on Oct. 9, has sparked the biggest crisis of de facto Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi's seven months in power.

Troops poured into the region after the attacks, which the government says were carried out by minority Rohingya Muslims with links to militant Islamists overseas.

The military operation has sharpened the tension between Suu Kyi's civilian administration and the army, which ruled the country for decades and retains key powers, including control of ministries responsible for security.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said reporters trying to cover the unrest in Rakhine faced obstruction and harassment.

Authorities have not allowed foreign journalists to visit the area and the international media was not invited to travel with senior diplomats who visited this week, even as state media obtained full access.

REPORTS OF SEXUAL ASSAULTS

Zaw Htay, the spokesman for President Htin Kyaw, has said reports of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings and arbitrary arrests by soldiers are being fabricated by people in cahoots with the insurgents.

The CPJ raised particular concern over the response of Zaw Htay to an Oct. 27 report carried in the Myanmar Times newspaper alleging multiple gang rapes by soldiers.

Reuters also reported on the allegations, interviewing eight women who said they were raped by troops.

Zaw Htay complained about the report and singled out Myanmar Times special investigations editor Fiona MacGregor for criticism on his Facebook page.

Days later MacGregor was told by the newspaper's senior management that she was being fired for damaging the paper's reputation, she told Reuters on Friday.

"It's extremely concerning and unacceptable that representatives of the democratically elected government would use social media and bullying tactics to suppress stories about important issues like gender-based violence in conflict," said MacGregor.

Zaw Htay, a former soldier and holdover from the previous military-aligned administration, said the government had nothing to hide.

"I'm really sorry to hear about the sacking of the Myanmar Times reporter," he told Reuters.

"Actually we didn't make any personal attack on her, but just highlighted she didn't reach other reliable sources and it led to a one-sided news article based on unreliable sources."

The Myanmar Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The paper has not carried any reports on the Rakhine crisis since Monday.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia, said the case marked "a new low" for the government.

"Rather than trying to shut down reports that it doesn't like, the government should respect press freedom and permit journalists to do their jobs by investigating what is really happening on the ground," said Robertson.

Suu Kyi's government should "assert civilian control over its security forces", Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement.

"The best way to prove or disprove allegations of rights abuses is to allow independent media to probe the accusations."

ETHNIC TENSIONS

The violence in recent weeks is the most serious to hit Rakhine since hundreds were killed in communal clashes in 2012.

Myanmar's 1.1 million Rohingya Muslims are denied citizenship, with many majority Buddhists regarding them as illegal immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh, and face severe travel restrictions. They form the majority in northern Rakhine.

In a separate case relating to the conflict, a staffer in the ruling party was charged on Friday under the country's controversial Telecommunications Law for criticizing the army's handling of the unrest.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, employed as a researcher in Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy had been detained on Thursday, party central executive committee member Nyan Win told Reuters.

Myo Yan Naung Thein wrote on Facebook that Commander in Chief Min Aung Hlaing's "negligence" was to blame for the Oct. 9 attacks and that he should stand down.

Human rights advocates have said they were troubled by a broadly worded clause of the law that prohibits use of the telecoms network to, "extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate".

Arrests of social media users whose posts are deemed distasteful have continued under Suu Kyi's government.

(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Alex Richardson)



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