BANGKOK: When five Myanmar journalists were sentenced to decade-long prison terms for reporting the alleged existence of a military-run chemical weapons factory in Myanmar a few years ago, Aung San Suu Kyi then an opposition lawmaker condemned the harsh punishments as "very excessive."
The journalists, from the now-defunct Unity publication, had been convicted for violating the nation's Official Secrets Act the same colonial-era law now being leveled against a pair of Reuters reporters who are facing a staggering 14 years behind bars each.
"It's not that I don't accept a concern over national security," Suu Kyi told supporters during a July 2014 rally, according to an article published at the time in the Irrawaddy, a local media outlet. "But in a democratic system, security should be in balance with freedom."
When "the rights of journalists (to report) are being controlled," Suu Kyi said, the very notion of democratic reform in Myanmar is "questionable."
Three and a half years on, the thinking of Suu Kyi, who now heads the government, has apparently changed dramatically.
Rather than champion the press, she has presided over an administration whose courts have aggressively pursued legal charges against dozens of journalists, along with other attempts to suppress and discredit the media.
Police arrested Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on December 12 while they were investigating the massacre of 10 ethnic Rohingya Muslims. But when former UN ambassador Bill Richardson met the Nobel Peace prize laureate this month and brought up the case against the Reuters reporters, it "brought almost an explosion on her part," Richardson said.
Suu Kyi's spokesman, Zaw Htay, has said that Richardson exceeded his mandate by bringing up the issue. Richardson had been invited to the country to participate in an advisory panel on the Rohingya crisis; he withdrew, calling it a "whitewash."
Htay did not answer his cell phone when AP attempted to reach him several times Wednesday for comment.
Hostility against the media, particularly international news agencies covering Myanmar, has risen markedly since a brutal army "clearance" operation began in August immediately after Rohingya insurgents staged an unprecedented wave of attacks. More than 700,000 Rohingya, a persecuted minority widely despised by the nation's Buddhist majority, have been driven into Bangladesh since.
Reporters and human rights groups covering the crisis have documented grave atrocities, including mass rape, several massacres and widespread arson attacks that left hundreds of Rohingya villages burned to the ground. Earlier this month, The Associated Press reported the existence of at least five mass graves at Gu Dar Pyin village in Rakhine state.
Suu Kyi's government has routinely denied atrocities and staunchly defended the military's actions, portraying critical media reports as "fake news" in what analysts say is an effort to discredit independent media reports and limit reporting.
They're "doing everything in their power to block the flow of news, to ensure that no damaging information comes to light," said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"They're using legal threats, they're blocking access to areas where alleged abuses occurred, they're making it harder for foreigners to get visas," he said. "They've created a climate of fear among local reporters, too, and the message is clear. If you report critically, you risk going to jail."