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Jail, lawsuits cast shadow over Myanmar media freedom

By Paul Mooney

YANGON (Reuters) - Two years after Myanmar scrapped censorship in one of its boldest reforms, its journalists are again living in fear of jail and are convinced a state-sponsored crackdown is under way to limit press freedom.

Eight members of the media have been arrested since December and two jailed in what critics say is government backsliding on some of the wide-ranging reforms that led the West to lift sanctions after decades of military rule.

"The hardliners in the government think (media freedom) has now gone too far," says Thiha Saw, chief editor of the English-language Myanma Freedom.

Reporting on sensitive issues such as graft, land grabs and religious and ethnic tensions may have provoked the reaction, journalists say.

The arrests evoke memories of the country's oppressive past, with detention of members of the media a hallmark of the previous military government, said London-based Amnesty International in a recent statement.

Toe Zaw Latt, bureau chief for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), has felt the brunt of the crackdown.

One of his video journalists was jailed last month, with hard labor, while an Australian intern working with DVB was deported on Thursday after the government said he took part in a protest calling for his colleague's release. The DVB denied he took part in the protest saying he only reported on it.

"It's a deliberate and consolidated effort by the government to restrict the media," Toe Zaw Latt said.

DVB video journalist Zaw Pe was working on a story about Japanese-funded scholarships for Burmese students, but found himself behind bars for the second time having been imprisoned by the junta that ruled brutally for 49 years.

Journalist Ma Khine was sentenced to three months in prison in December for defamation, trespassing and abusive language while interviewing a lawyer about judicial corruption.

Three months later, four journalists and the chief executive of Unity Journal were charged with violating the 1923 State Secrets Act. They were arrested over a story that said Chinese engineers were helping the military set up a chemical weapons factory and could face a maximum 14 years in prison.

"Journalists have been testing the government in the past few months by covering once very sensitive topics," said a freelance journalist, who requested anonymity.

"They have, in my view, crossed the permissible lines defined by the limited reforms."

TIGHTER CONTROL

New media laws approved by parliament in March and pending presidential approval would give authorities broader power over the press, critics say.

One would allow the government to ban publications for inciting unrest or threatening "national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility."

The government has also tightened controls on foreign media. Visiting correspondents are receiving one-month visas instead of three months, while resident foreign journalists get only six-month visas and must leave the country every 28 days. Officials at the information ministry were not available for comment on the changes.

Government spokesman Ye Htut said no crackdown was under way.

"The government has never sued any reporters for defamation with intent to restrict press freedom," he said. "Any organization or person has the right to legal protection when it comes to infringing on state security or private rights."

Myanmar's two-year experiment with press freedom moved at an astonishing pace under president and former army heavyweight, Thein Sein, whose reforms since 2011 helped to convince Europe and the United States to roll back crippling trade sanctions.

Pre-publication censorship was abolished, detained journalists were freed, and independent newspapers and magazines were published for the first time since the 1960s

Once banned images of Aung San Suu Kyi, the opposition leader who waged a non-violent struggle against dictatorship, were splashed across front pages.

But the government only lifted censorship under pressure from the international community as a step toward ending sanctions, some critics say.

"The short-lived opening was a sop to the United States and other Western governments calling for democratic progress in return for repealing economic sanctions," said Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Daniel Russel, U.S. Assistant Secretary for East Asia and Pacific, told officials during a visit to Myanmar last month to go easy on journalists.

"One aspect of civil service is the requirement that you develop a thick skin," he said. "The fact that you don't like what reporters are writing isn't justification for limiting their ability to operate."

(Corrects to add sourcing, DVB denial in paragraph 7)

(Editing by Martin Petty)

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