Censorship remains a big challenge for incoming parliament

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Journalists gather in front of a TV screen to watch the opening session of Myanmar’s new parliament. This TV screen is their only source of what goes on in the main parliament chamber. About 500 journalists registered to cover the first day of the second parliament session.

Nay Pyi Taw – Myanmar, once ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world, has entered into a new era as the parliament led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) convened on 1 February 2016 for the first time.

The NLD, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, won a landslide election last November 2015 defeating the then ruling and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

But given this recent development, old issues have remained. Among them, the continuing restrictions on free expression and press freedom.

Limited access

Covering the sessions of the previous parliament was not that easy, journalists said.

“In the beginning, you couldn’t ask questions to the lawmakers,” said Aung Htet, a senior reporter of the Voice Weekly, a local publication.

“We had five minutes to enter the assembly hall. Interviews and photographs are allowed (only) during these five minutes,” added Aung Htet who has been covering the parliament since 2011.

Journalists were not permitted to enter the Parliament chambers in April 2015 after photos of sleeping lawmakers were published online. The following month, journalists negotiated with Myanmar officials to restore their access.

Since then, reporters in the capital Nay Pyi Taw have to make do watching the proceedings from a television in the parliament’s corridor.

“We informed the NLD about it, but (there is) no reply yet,” Aung Htet said.

Other pictures, which showed members of the parliament (MP) using their tablets while at work and an army representative leaning over the desk of an absent MP to press a voting button, were also published.

Kyaw Soe, director general of the Union Parliament who handles administrative duties, cited the public release of these photos as the main reason for the rules on the conduct of the media during sessions.

The restrictions did not only apply to journalists, but also to MPs.

“USDP lawmakers had to pass censors before discussion in parliament all the time,” said Thura U Aung Ko, who was ousted from his role as a central committee member of President Thein Sein’s USDP.

“We can only discuss issues in accordance with the party policy,” Thura U Aung Ko said on his last day as an MP on 29 January 2016.

In transition

In the 2010 general elections, the USDP led by the ex-generals of the former junta dominated while NLD boycotted the polls.

The quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein, a former general, restored some civil liberties including the relaxation of media restrictions. In August 2012, the authorities ended the (pre-publication) censorship regime of the local publications. This media-related development has become the linchpin of Myanmar’s reform process, even as concerns about self-censorship and other attacks against the media continued.

Media freedom advocate groups in the country said the policy has not gone far enough to introduce a “normal” media environment under the quasi-civilian government. Radio and television licenses have yet to be liberalized; and access to information and government officials remains almost impossible.

These issues indicate that free expression and press freedom remain at fragile state.

NLD, on its way to become the main opposition party, won 43 out of the 44 parliament seats vacated by Thein Sein cabinet members during the by-elections in April 2012.

Its victory last November 2015 gave journalists hope for an improved media and press freedom landscape.

“I believe the NLD knows the role of media in the democratic transition, and will respect the right to information,” said Aung Thura, a member of the Myanmar Journalist Network.

“Daw Suu has invited us to give advice related to the media situation here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Suu Kyi is under criticism for blocking the party’s spokesperson from talking to the media about the party policy shortly after its election victory.

Her order raised concerns whether NLD lawmakers can discuss in the parliament freely or not.

“She just restricts us before the power transfer,” said Win Htein of NLD. “Don’t worry for freedom of expression in parliament as well as in the country. We respect and value the press freedom,” he added.