YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's government is using threats, harassment and imprisonment to intimidate the media ahead of national elections later this year, Amnesty International said Wednesday.
The London-based human rights group said efforts to restrict freedom of expression have intensified over the past year, with at least 10 members of the media currently languishing in prison, all of them jailed in the last 12 months.
Such actions belie claims of liberalization since the country started a democratic transition in 2011 from a military regime to an elected civilian government that vowed democratic reforms, the group said in a 22-page report.
Significant changes have been made in moving the country to a free-market economy, and Myanmar has a parliament for the first time in more than two decades. Formal censorship has been dropped and the electronic and print media opened to competition, but the government has aggressively prosecuted publications and journalists over stories it has found offensive.
"What we are seeing in Myanmar today is repression dressed up as progress," Amnesty said in a statement that quoted its Southeast Asia research director, Rupert Abbott. "Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics — arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover 'inconvenient' topics."
Information Minister and presidential spokesman Ye Htut disputed Amnesty's criticism.
"We usually don't pay attention to such statements by international organizations because they focus solely on freedom of expression," he said.
Ye Htut said that because Myanmar is still making a transition to democracy, it has to measure freedom based on "the country's fragile social and political factors, freedom along with responsibility and abidance of media ethics."
Myanmar most serious challenges include placating armed ethnic minorities who for decades have been seeking greater autonomy, and ending often violent communal tensions between Buddhist and Muslims. The upcoming polls are expected to see Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy party perform strongly against the current military-backed government, threatening the power of the army, which many see as still pulling the strings in running the country.
Amnesty cited the cases since 2014 of at least 10 journalists imprisoned from two to seven years under criminal charges and "vaguely formulated laws" and the killing of a journalist in military custody.
The group charged that the authorities are also often dragging the media through lengthy and costly legal processes, or relying on collective punishment where the response to one critical story is prosecuting several people from the same outlet to effectively shut down the whole outlet.
The Information Ministry last year sued 11 staff members of the Myanmar Herald weekly journal under a media law for printing an article referring to President Thein Sein as a fool, and five people including the CEO, editor-in-chief, editor and publisher from the influential newspaper "Daily Eleven" are being sued for defamation for publishing a report about alleged irregularities in the purchase of a printing press by the ministry.
"The media plays a crucial role in holding a free and fair election," said Zaw Thet Htway, a former political prisoner under the military regime and editor-in-chief of the weekly "Tomorrow" news journal.