Independence and impartiality key challenges facing media in election coverage

Burma electionsThe November 8 national elections in Burma emphasised the role of the media in providing information for citizens to better participate in political discourse.

According to electoral parties, the uneven coverage of candidates and issues favoured certain groups and individuals. Media organizations and journalists acknowledged the challenges they faced reporting the last elections, including independence and impartiality.

Representatives of political parties discussed the media coverage of the election campaign during a roundtable discussion initiated by SEAPA on 8 December in Yangon.

Political parties said that free and fair should not only refer to elections, but more so to how the media should have reported the process.

Soon-to-be-outgoing party and several ethnic parties cited that one of the reasons why they lost votes was due to the biased coverage of the media.

“When media constantly highlight the campaign activities and manifestos of one party, they become a major force for that particular party in collecting the votes,” said Dr. Ye Aung, chairman of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) in Bahan Township, Yangon.

The continuous complimentary coverage of one party could lead to ballots cast to their favor so I say that the media coverage of the November 8 elections is not fair and square to all political parties, he added.

U Htay Oo, vice chairman of USDP, shared the same post-election sentiment saying that USDP’s failure to win major votes is partly due to unfair news coverage.

Htay Oo ran in Hinthada Township in the Irrawaddy Division and did not get enough votes to be reelected. The party had swept landslide votes in the previous 2010 elections in which only a handful of alternative and opposition parties contested.

“During the national wide campaigns, a high-profile party leader said do not to look at the candidates instead focus on the party. When even a dead candidate from that party wins, the influence of a blanket coverage for one party in Myanmar shows,” said Dr. Ye Aung. He was referring to the case of a National League for Democracy (NLD) candidate, who passed away before the elections and still won, in Myin-Mu constituent in Sagaing Division of central Burma.

Some ethnic party representatives expressed the same concerns regarding the media coverage of elections. Like the ruling party USDP, most of the ethnic parties did not get enough votes to become members of the national parliament except in Shan and Rakhine states.

“Obviously, the two high-profile parties were dominating the election coverage. The people didn’t have a chance to hear the voices of ethnic leaders. What I wonder here is why the media only want to interview Aung San Suu Kyi,” said Cheery Zahau, a candidate from Chin Democratic Party.

The ruling party and ethnic parties attributed NLD’s victory to the sentimental way that the media covered the party’s slogan “Time to Change.”

NLD won major votes across the country to form the new government in March 2016. “We won’t deny that the media’s support during NLD’s campaigns paved the way for us to win. But, we can’t rely only on the media in this political race,” said Ma Thandar, elected member of the parliament (MP) from the Ein Mae Township of Irrawaddy Division.

“Realistically speaking, the media will only cover the party’s activities if it is newsworthy. The party has to work hard as well to get media attention,” he added.

The Shan National Democratic party won one seat across the Shan state this elections. The party won major seats in Shan state last 2010 elections.

“The media followed their ethical guidelines in the coverage of the November 8 elections. The point here is, the political party has to do its own tasks and fill the resources regardless if it receives enough media coverage or not. Media coverage alone can’t decide the future of and a favorable outcome for the party,” said U Ye Htun, acting MP of the Shan party in the current parliament.

The government under President Thein Sein has initiated reforms including the easing of controls on the press and media. The incumbent government recognized the role of the media — the “fourth pillar for the country which can open eyes and ears of the people of Myanmar.”

“We try to uphold media ethics in our daily work. But occasionally, catering to what the people want to see and hear leads to the journalists’ misconduct. Regarding the media coverage of the recent elections, we could say that the media were a bit biased,” said Lut Latt Soe, chief editor of People-Age Weekly paper.

While the news coverage of elections by privately-run media outlets received much public criticism, the extensive coverage of the State-run media on the campaign of the ruling party and the involvement of the army caught little attention.

According to the Myanmar Interim Press Council’s guidelines on media ethics, news coverage should be accurate and balanced. During the campaign and election period, the press council reminded media organizations and journalists to adhere to these guidelines and ensure a fair treatment of all political parties.

“Our outlet doesn’t take sides. The media should not be for any party — should only work for the public’s interest,” said Bran Mein, chief executive officer of the Myitkyinar Journal from Kachin Sate in northern Burma.

[Report by Tin Maung Htwe, copy editor of MID News, an initiative under SEAPA’s Strengthening Ethnic Voices in Myanmar project. Photo by Wai Yan.]