By Charles M. Sennott
YANGON, Myanmar -- In a grand ballroom at a fancy hotel here, some 300 journalists and media executives from around the world assembled last week for an International Press Institute (IPI) conference headlined "On the Path to a Free Media."
But protests by local journalists at the entrance to the hotel and placards held up during the three-day gathering underscored that there are still some treacherous turns -- and a few dangerous potholes -- along Myanmar's long road toward establishing greater press freedom.
Myanmar, like many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia, is witnessing serious setbacks for those who hold out hope that a culture of free expression might be emerging.
A leading Burmese magazine, Mizzima Weekly, featured a cover story last week titled "Media Under Threat" and chronicled 20 instances in which journalists have been jailed since 2013. Reporters covering student protests in March were detained for days for trying to document a brutal police crackdown.
In neighboring Bangladesh, reports emerged this week that another dissident, secular blogger was allegedly hacked to death with machetes by Islamic students. It was the second such murder in the last month in Bangladesh, and many bloggers are reportedly fleeing or shutting down their sites.
In Malaysia, three editors and two executives with a news website called The Malaysian Insider were arrested Monday in what critics called a direct assault on press freedom.
In Vietnam, Singapore, Cambodia and Laos, "the situation of freedom of expression has stagnated," according to the 2014 index published by Reporters Without Borders. The index stated that free speech in Myanmar is "being watched with great interest."
In a region writhing with change and challenges to authoritarian rule, it seems that old habits of intimidation and murder of journalists still cast a shadow over hopes for democratic reform.
In Yangon, at the IPI conference, a scene played out that seemed to drive home the complex mix of hope and despair around the country's struggle for a free press and a new democracy.
Just as Myanmar's Information Minister Ye Htut was commenting Saturday on how far Myanmar had come since a few years ago, when a military junta tightly controlled the media, a man wearing a facemask stood up and interrupted him.
The masked man silently held a protest placard as cameras flashed all around him. The placard read, "Stop beating, arresting and imprisoning journalists!" At another time in this country, this expression of dissent would have likely gotten him arrested. Instead, the anonymous man held up his sign in protest and then quietly slipped away and left the hotel.
And on Friday morning, as the three-day conference got underway, a small group of local journalists assembled in protest handing out stickers that read, "Stop Attacks on the Media!"
Ye Htut seemed eager to respond to the protests by stressing that reform "takes time."
And, he added, "I would like to assure you Myanmar's reform process is unstoppable, and is moving forward."
But many of the local journalists attending the conference seemed unconvinced. While they agreed much progress has been made, they were very quick to add that there is still a very long way to go.
Even if they wanted to believe that the country was reforming in important ways, they were expressing concern that recent crackdowns and the arrests of journalists covering student protests were signs that the old ways of the military junta could be returning in Myanmar, also known as Burma.
Outside the conference, in the cramped but buzzing newsroom of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), worked Khin Maung Win, deputy editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma.
"When we came back to this country three years ago, we had high hope that things would change," said Win, who heads up the daily operation of the independent news organization which he operated in exile in Thailand for more than 20 years.
"But last year alone there were a lot of incidents. One freelance journalist was arrested in broad daylight and taken to a military facility and killed during interrogation. And no one has been held accountable for this killing," Win said.
"Last year, 10 journalists were imprisoned, and one of them was ours," he said. "And 17 journalists are now standing trial. On the one hand, they give us freedom, but this freedom is under threat."
He added, "We acknowledge that there is some real change. We can now speak against the government with some limits, but the gains we have made are now very much under threat."
David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, was in Myanmar for the IPI conference and pointed out that there has been "a remarkable depth of change." But he also added the progress "can be hard to see" when there are journalists jailed and threatened.
He urged the government to immediately release all journalists in detention, saying it would be a significant demonstration of Myanmar's commitment to free speech as the cornerstone that it will need to put down in order to build a new democracy.
A test looms this fall, when Myanmar will hold national elections in which the opposition party of longtime dissident and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi will participate, though she is still barred from running for president. Many international observers and local political analysts see the election as the first chance at a free and fair vote in Myanmar in nearly three decades.
Whether the government will permit a free press to confidently cover these elections and ask the hard questions could be a major factor in the result of the election. It could also impact international opinion on just how genuine Myanmar's steps toward democracy really are.
Soe Myint, executive editor of the Mizzima Media Group, who returned from exile in 2012 after 22 years working abroad as an opposition journalist, said the stakes are high.
"Myanmar is fast approaching a crucial test in our ongoing transition," Soe Myint told the IPI gathering. "Just how free and fair the election is deemed to be will greatly impact the social, political and investment climate in the country and significantly serve to stabilize or destabilize the reform process."
Charles M. Sennott, Executive Director of The GroundTruth Project, is a board member of the North American Committee of the International Press Institute. GroundTruth, in partnership with the New York-based Open Hands Initiative, led a reporting fellowship with 20 top, young journalist in Myanmar in 2012 and published a GlobalPost 'Special Report' titled "A Burmese Journey."