The Feb 10 arrest in Burma of Ross Dunkley, the Australian publisher of The Phnom Penh Post and CEO and editor-in-chief of The Myanmar Times, had media organizations denouncing the newspaperman’s case as yet another example of oppression by Burma’s military junta.
The Overseas Press Club of Cambodia said in a statement last week that it was “concerned that Dunkley’s arrest is in line with a trend of increasing authoritarianism in some countries in the region and efforts to circumscribe hard-won press freedoms.”
In the aftermath of Mr Dunkley’s arrest, The Diplomat, a current affairs magazine that covers the Asia-Pacific region, said that the arrest “speaks volumes about the bullying of a junta that believes its November elections were grounds for the dropping of sanctions and its re-emergence into the wider world.”
But, though Mr Dunkley’s case has drawn the interest of some press freedom advocates, his business associations in Burma are also the target of pro-democracy and human rights activists.
The Myanmar Times is considered by many to be a mouthpiece for Burma’s military junta, an opinion only reinforced by its coverage of the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi in November after she spent most of the past 20 years in detention.
“When the Lady [Aung San Suu Kyi] was released, other local papers published that news,” said Aung Min, a former Burmese fellow at the Southeast Asian Press Alliance. “But MT (Myanmar Times) didn’t publish that story at all in that issue.”
David Armstrong, chairman of Post Media Ltd, the company that owns The Phnom Penh Post, said by telephone from Thailand last week that Mr Dunkley had done nothing wrong and would stand trial in Rangoon on Thursday.
Asked why Mr Dunkley had been arrested, Mr Armstrong said: “I guess you’d have to ask the Myanmar authorities.”
Mr Dunkley is currently being held in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison, a place were prisoners have reportedly been tortured and beaten by guards.
Officially, Burmese authorities have said they arrested Mr Dunkley under the immigration act, which allows foreigners to be jailed for up to two years for violating any of its provisions.
However, Mr Armstrong said that the arrest had also coincided with a business dispute between local and foreign shareholders at The Myanmar Times.
The Irrawaddy, a dissident anti-junta publication that operates out of Thailand, reported this week that the dispute was between Mr Dunkley and Tin Htun Oo, a man close to Burma’s Information Minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, who owns 51 percent of the shares in The Myanmar Times.
But Mr Dunkley’s arrest has also been the subject of thinly sourced media reports making mention of possible drug charges. The early reports caused Mr Armstrong to issue a statement two days after the arrest to counter what he called “seriously inaccurate” reporting.
Mr Dunkley and fellow Australian business partner Bill Clough—head of private Australian explorer Twinza Oil, which signed an exploration and production-sharing contract with Burmese authorities in 2006—founded The Myanmar Times in 2000, before investing in The Phnom Penh Post in 2008.
Rights groups have criticized Twinza for supporting Burma’s military dictatorship.
Despite the lack of information about the reasons behind Mr Dunkley’s arrest, some still believe that his incarceration is no matter for freedom of expression advocates.
“Nobody really cares about what happens. It’s state media,” said Aung Zaw, the founder of The Irrawaddy, which has been critical of Mr Dunkley.
“I don’t see evidence of The Myanmar Times promoting press freedom in Burma,” he said, adding that he was aware of self-censorship and a pro-regime editorial slant at the newspaper. “Even at election time, it [The Myanmar Times] came out to praise the regime saying that this is a new era.”
Not all feel the same, however.
The Diplomat has taken a different stance, describing The Myanmar Times last week as “a solid newspaper that trains journalists and focuses on news and current affairs outside of Burma.”
Moeun Chhean Narriddh, director of the Cambodian Institute for Media Studies, said Mr Dunkley was doing his part for improving professional standards of journalism in Burma. But in doing so, he has been forced to compromise his journalistic standards in order to stay open.
“I think to stay alive in the long run—I think he might have tried to compromise,” he said.