In Myanmar, Press Freedom is a Double-Edged Sword

It's one step forward, two steps back for Myanmar's beleaguered journalists.

President Thein Sein ostensibly closed the book on five decades of media repression this week by enacting two new measures designed to replace the country's longstanding and draconian media law. The problem? The news laws are awfully contradictory. While the Press Law protects the rights and editorial freedom of journalists, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law seems to undercut those protections by giving the government the power to revoke or withhold publishing licenses at any time and for any reason.

Requiring media organizations to obtain publishing licenses at all is highly problematic, of course. In the first place, such requirements can be easily abused by government agencies or officials -- and in Myanmar, which is already notorious for restricting press freedoms, the risks of this happening seem fairly high. The new law is also eerily, and disturbingly, reminiscent of the infamous 1962 media regulation of the same name. The old law gave the government complete discretion over what could be published and, under it, journalists could be -- and were -- jailed for up to seven years for publishing material "disrespecting the State." While much less severe than its precursor, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law includes a very vague ban on reporting that could "incite unrest," "insult religion" and "violate the Constitution," and imposes penalties of up to $500 for doing any of the above.

In a letter to Thein Sein on Monday, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists argued that the law "point[s] to a mounting clampdown on press freedom similar to the repression journalists faced under the military junta" that ruled the country until 2011.

Over the past two years, Thein Sein's transitional government has eased longstanding censorship rules and released imprisoned journalists, setting off a mild media renaissance marked by the birth of dozens of new publications. But there are plenty of reasons to remain skeptical of the regime's nods at reform. A case in point: The president signed the new laws as four Burmese journalists for the newspaper Unity Journal were going to trial for reporting the existence of an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. The Irrawaddy, a national paper, reports that they're being charged with leaking state secrets and and face up to 14 years in prison. Their conviction would seemingly fly in the face of the new press freedom law, which the state-run newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, described as proof positive that "investigative journalism and critical reporting [is now] backed by [the] government."

"The detention and trial of the Unity journalists is the clearest indication yet that military authorities are chafing under the more open reporting environment," Shawn Crispin, the southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the South China Morning Post Tuesday. "The conviction and sentencing to prison of the reporters would be the nail in the coffin of Myanmar's supposed media reform drive."

Burmese journalists, in other words, can breathe small a sigh of relief that the Press Law makes their lives a little bit easier, and a little bit safer. But they better not get too comfortable with their newfound freedoms, lest they discover that they -- like the four Unity Journal reporters now sitting in prison -- weren't so free in the first place.

Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty Images


Russia Sanctions Fail to Soothe Poland’s Frayed Nerves

This article has been corrected. 

By presenting a united front and slapping Russia with harsh sanctions, it was thought that the United States and Europe might in one fell swoop deter Vladimir Putin from seizing Crimea while also reassuring nervous allies on the Russian border. On Tuesday, that line of thinking crumbled underneath the Russian president's decisive move to seize legal control of the Black Sea peninsula.

In the early stages of the crisis in Ukraine, Poland served as a highly-engaged mediator. Now, it's little more than a highly anxious, somewhat powerless observer of a feckless sanctions regime by the West. "What happened doesn't accomplish anything, it doesn't change the situation and is not a punishment towards those who have really transgressed," said Roman Kuzniar, a foreign affairs adviser to Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski.* "The principals will remain untouchable."

Indeed, the Russian oligarchy appears to agree. "I see the decision by the administration in Washington as an acknowledgment of my service to Russia," said Vladislav Surkov, the architect of Putin's system of "sovereign democracy" and one of the individuals targeted by U.S. sanctions. "It's a big honor for me. I don't have accounts abroad. The only things that interest me in the U.S. are Tupac Shakur, Allen Ginsberg, and Jackson Pollock. I don't need a visa to access their work. I lose nothing."

Surkov, in fact, is an illustrative example of the difference in approach between the United States and the EU in sanctioning Russian officials. The EU imposed asset freezes and travel bans on a motley crew of 21 middling officials who were deemed to have assisted in Russia's annexation of Crimea. The U.S. list was shorter -- 11 names, in total -- but hit a somewhat higher echelon of apparatchiks, targeting some Kremlin aides, such as Surkov. But the truly big fish -- Putin and the heads of the country's state-led gas and oil companies -- remain conspicuously absent from both lists.  

Victor Ashe, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland during the George W. Bush administration, called the current sanctions "very limited" and said that additional sanctions were needed "to have a real impact."

It should come as no surprise that Polish commentators have been struck by a slight fatalism. "Putin doesn't care about sanctions. He knows that in the short term they won't undermine Russia's authority, on the contrary, they will strengthen it," Pawel Wronski writes in Gazeta Wyborcza, one of Poland's biggest daily newspapers.

EU leaders will meet to discuss further sanctions during a summit meeting Thursday and Friday, and while those measures may include tougher economic sanctions, there is little indication of broad support in Europe toward imposing harsh economic penalties on Russia. "I suggest caution with the enthusiasm towards imposing the sanctions, because we will pay for it as well, and we will pay more than others," Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said during a press conference. European nations have generally much stroner economic ties with Russia than the United States and are deeply reliant on Russian natural gas supplies. Poland, for example, imports some two-thirds of its natural gas from Russia.

With the first round of sanctions on Russian officials having paid few dividends, Vice President Joseph Biden rushed to Poland with promises of support. "You have an ally whose budget is larger than the next 10 nations in the world combined, so don't worry about where we are," Biden said. His proof of U.S. support against possible Russian aggression: promises of 12 F-16 fighter jets and 10 additional U.S. F-15s to patrol the skies over the Baltic States as part of a NATO operation.

"Only Euro-Atlantic solidarity will allow us to prepare sufficient and strong reactions to Russia's aggression," said Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

So far, Poland has been willing to take a tough line on Russia, much more so than other European nations. "We need to sit at a [negotiating] table and talk about resolving this conflict, but our gun has to be cocked when it comes to sanctions. They have to be imposed," MP Grzegorz Schetyna said Monday.

As Poland marks its 10th year of EU membership and 15 years in NATO, the country is having flashbacks of Russian and Soviet dominance. Poland threw off the Moscow's yoke just 24 years ago, and many still remember the invasion of the Red Army during World War II. On Tuesday, Gen. Stanislaw Koziej, the head of Poland's National Security Bureau, warned of a "new Cold War."

Even Poland's typically swashbuckling foreign minister has struck an anxious tone. "Everyone is aware that something sinister has happened, that in Europe, contrary to what we have learned from World War I and II, from the Cold War and so many civil wars in the last quarter-century, borders are changed by the use of power, based on the excuse of aiding your compatriots," he said Monday.

*Correction, March 20, 2014: Roman Kuzniar is a foreign affairs adviser to Poland’s president. This article originally stated he is an adviser to the Polish government. (Return to reading.)