Myanmar journalist honoured as country waits for press freedoms

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Myanmar journalist Mratt Kyaw Thu has been awarded this year's Kate Webb Prize for his coverage of ethnic strife in the country.

The prize - worth 3000 Euros - is awarded annually by Agence France Presse to journalists working in perilous or difficult conditions in Asia. It is named for crusading New Zealand-born AFP reporter Kate Webb, who died in 2007 aged 64, after a career covering the world's troublespots.

Twenty-seven-year-old Mratt Kyaw Thu wrote a series of articles about ethnic and religious conflict in Myanmar's Shan and Rakhine states in 2016, the latter a precursor to the exodus of nearly 650,000 Rohingya Muslims from Rakhine earlier this year.

The stories were published in English-language news weekly Frontier, helping it establish a reputation for independent reporting.

AFP regional director Philippe Massonnet said it was the first time a Myanmar journalist would receive the award. "Journalists work in a tough environment in Myanmar, where press freedom is a constant battle in which Mratt Kyaw Thu is one of the regular combattants," he said.

Mratt Kyaw Thu said he regarded the award not just as personal recognition, "but also for the struggles of all Myanmar journalists, who are in a very difficult situation right now.

"Friends are being arrested for doing their job. Myanmar journalists are being watched closely by the military and government - it's worse than before."

The prize - first awarded in 2008 - will be formally presented at a ceremony in Yangon in the New Year. Webb covered wars and other historic events in Asia during a career spanning four decades. She made her name in Vietnam and also worked in Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, India, South Korea and the Gulf. Known for her kindness and compassion, she became a mentor to younger Asian journalists.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says 60 per cent of the 65 journalists who were killed during 2017 were deliberately targeted in order to silence them.

Myanmar moved up 12 places to 131 in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, but its global score fell 3.66 from 45.48 in 2016.

RSF says that after the National League for Democracy's election victory, Burmese journalists who had hoped that they would never again have to fear arrest or imprisonment, found media freedom did not have a place among the new government's priorities. "Journalists imprisoned under Thein Sein have been amnestied and the state of emergency law has been repealed, but self-censorship continues in connection to government officials and military officers.

"The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed."

Pictured: Mratt Kyaw Thu (Picture AFP)

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