Guwahati: Killing of media persons in the Indian subcontinent is no unusual happening as it annually losses around ten journalists to assailants. India, Pakistan and Afghanistan often lead the list of victims with additional inputs from Bangladesh and Myanmar, where Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Tibet (under China) and Nepal normally maintain their no-journo killing index.
Myanmar (also known as Burma or Brahmadesh) as a whole witness lesser incidents of journo-killing and the Buddhist majority country witnessed the assassination of only five journalists in the last one and half decades. But the recent murder of a young reporter in its northwestern part, which is adjacent to Nagaland & Manipur, exposes the vulnerability of media persons, who dare to report on critical issues including the environment and shockingly with little hope for justice.
Ko Soe Moe Tun (35), a Monywa (Sagaing) based Burmese journalist was found dead on 13 December 2016, who was convincingly targeted for his extensive investigation & coverage on the wood smuggling, illegal logging and mining in northwest Myanmar. The reporter, engaged with Daily Eleven newspaper, published by the Yangon based Eleven Media Group, also posted few details in his facebook account about the people involved with the illegal timber trades.
The investigating police officers found a long stick, a rough rope, his cell phone etc nearby the body on the location. The severe injury-marks were visible on Soe’s nose, head and eyes. The autopsy report revealed that Soe’s skull was fractured causing his death. His mobile phone showed some miss calls in the midnight of 12 December, which might help the investigating authority to trace the killers. Soe left behind his mother (Ye Ye Htay), young wife (Daw Khin Cho)
and a minor son. The family source claimed that he was popular in his locality with no enmity to anyone. Hence, they believe that Soe was targeted because of his reporting-works primarily on illegal logging, farmland confiscation, karaoke lounges and the controversial Chinese-backed Letpataungdaung copper mine project.
Myanmar, which still possesses some of the most important biodiversity areas in the world, faces massive deforestations because of its prized teak wood and other wildlife. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, Myanmar lost one fourth of its forest covers in the last two and half decades. The losses are visible in Sagaing, Shan, Kachin, Arakan States of the underdeveloped country. Moreover the destruction of forests has severely affected the important habitats of various wildlife species.
The ancient stories narrate that the hills of Sagaing range were once covered with thick forests, where the king used to exile the condemned criminals for capital punishments as those were full of wild animals. But today because of recent legal and illegal loggings the country had lost two million hectares of its virgin forests.
Nevertheless, the country has around 30 million hectares of forest covers, which is impressive compared to many other southeast Asian countries. The government under the mentorship of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, which partially banned timber exports & logging, now declares that it would impose a nationwide ban on logging to protect the old trees in the coming days.
Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), while condoling over the demise of Soe, seconded the family’s view arguing that the young scribe used to write regularly on conservation issues and often received threats from the illegal logging traders prior to his death. Myanmar Press Council also supported the view arguing that threats against the journalists are common in the country.
The overall media freedom in Myanmar has improved since 2011, the year Myanmar’s military rulers handed over the political power to a quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein. Soon the government at NayPieTaw abolished the pre-publication censorship and allowed the privately owned daily newspapers to hit the stands. The situation further improved following the massive win by the National League for Democracy (NLD) in the last historic national
elections on 8 November 2015 under the leadership of Suu Kyi. Though the great lady could not become the President, because of some clauses in the 2008 military backed constitution, Suu Kyi emerges as the most powerful political figure in Myanmar.
Sadly, the Burmese journalist fraternity continues to work under threats, earlier if it was from the military forces, now it comes from different anti-social elements. It is still identified as one of the most censored countries in the globe. In reality the idea of press freedom is still new in the low literate country, which had slowly changed its face from the decades-long military dictatorship to a multi-party democracy.
The Yangon based Myanmar Frontier, in one of its editorials, argued that there were many challenges for the newly emerged democratic government, ‘but ensuring a media that is free from threats and is able to carry out its work would be a sign that the country (Myanmar) is moving in the right direction’.
The year 2016 ends with the statistics of 16 journalist-murder incidents in India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh along with Myanmar. India witnessed the murder of six journalists (Tarun Mishra from Uttar Pradesh, Indradev Yadav/ Akhilesh Pratap Singh from Jharkhand, Rajdeo Ranjan from Bihar, Anshita Bawa from Punjab, Kishore Dave from Gujarat and Dharmendra Kumar Singh from Bihar) in twelve months.
India’s troubled neighbor Pakistan lost three journalists (Mehmood Khan, Shehzad Ahmed and Muhammad Umar) to assailants, but Afghanistan lost more scribes (Nematullah Zahir, David Gilkey, Zabihullah Tamanna, Yaqoub Sharafat and Mohammad Zubair Khaksar in 2016. Myanmar and India’s immediate neighbor Bangladesh reported the killing of one editor (Xulhaz Mannan) and a netizen (Samad Nazijmuddin) in the bygone year.
Prior to Soe’s murder, Myanmar had lost four journalists namely Aung Kyaw Naing (also known as Ko Par Gyi in 2014), Kenji Nagai (2007), Hla Han and Tha Win (1999) to assailants with impunity. Moreover, the government imprisoned many media personalities including Lu Maw Naing (since January 2014), Aung Thura (February 2014), Sithu Soe (February 2014), Yarzar Oo (February 2014), Tint San (February 2014) etc. Meanwhile, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Reporters Sans/without Frontiers (RSF), Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) etc deplored the murder of Soe and demanded actions against the criminals. Facing the heat, the Myanmar authorities recently detained three suspects in the murder, but reportedly two of them were already released. The Sagaing chief minister Dr Myint Naing, who visited the residence of Soe on 19 December, stated that the police would find out the truth about his murder. Dr Naing asserted that he too wanted to see the true picture and appealed to everyone to work together to find out the truth.
Asia-Pacific Forum of Environmental Journalists (APFEJ), while appreciating the Myanmar police for questioning few persons relating to Soe’s murder, has urged the authority for further investigation and stringent actions against the culprits. The Dhaka based scribe’s forum argued that killing a journalist because of his reporting on environmental issues must be dealt with absolute seriousness. “Killing of a scribe is a serious offence, but the assassination of an environmental journalist should be recognized a major crime both against the humanity and Mother Nature. We demand a fair probe into Soe’s murder and visible punishment to the culprits,” said APFEJ chairman Quamrul Chowdhury. He also appealed to the Burmese government to adequately compensate the family of the slain journalist and support his eight years old son in pursuing proper education.
Nava Thakuria is a Guwahati based journalist