[Myanmar] Much remains to be done

The November 2015 national elections and the landslide victory of the National League for Democracy (NLD) were critical events in Myanmar’s struggle for democracy. These emphasized that the country and its people value human rights, including press freedom and free expression.

The media coverage of the last campaign and elections was relatively free. Local and international media and journalists actively participated. There is an effort to open the space for discussion and debate. The authorities dissolved the censor office and have shown greater understanding and tolerance toward the media.

However, it remains to be seen whether NLD will keep its commitment to respect and uphold press freedom and free expression. Uncertainty persists over the power-sharing system between the elected leaders and the military rulers. Obsolete and repressive laws that keep control of the media and information still exist.

The media community itself faces prevailing concerns as lack of professionalism and ethics, safety of journalists, and sustainability. Other issues like media ownership and editorial independence persist.

Myanmar’s transition presents challenges for the media, but also provides opportunities to evaluate its role in this changing social and political environment.

Impunity reigns

The country’s campaign to end impunity suffered a blow in March 2016. Courts nullified the case on the killing of freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, also known as Par Gyi, in the last days of President Thein Sein’s administration.

Killing of journalists is not as common in Myanmar as in other Southeast Asian neighbors, Par Gyi’s is the only recorded incident since 2012. But the cycle of violence and the breakdown of the rule of law continue as urgent problems in the country.

According to reports, soldiers tortured and killed Par Gyi while holding him in custody in Kyaikmayaw Township of Mon state. He was reporting on clashes between the military and ethnic Karen rebels before he was arrested. The military said he was shot when he attempted to escape detention.

Authorities recommended to close the case calling it a “mistake.” This happened a few days before NLD took over the government. Information minister Pe Myint said the decision was “totally unacceptable” and declared “to bring this case to justice.” As of this writing, perpetrators have yet to be held accountable.

Worrying trend

Despite the previous administration’s attempts to introduce media reforms, journalists face difficulty reporting certain issues that involve the government particularly the military and police forces.

A bomb exploded at the house of Min Min, chief editor of the independent news organization Root Investigative Agency (RiA), on 10 March 2016. The Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said in a statement: “It was the first time that a media professional has been the target of an act of violence of this kind in Burma.”

Min Min told the local media that the attack may have been prompted by their reporting on sensitive military and internal conflict in the Rakhine state.

The area has been devastated with racial and religious tensions since 2012. In Rakhine state, the social fabric is very complex and the political situation is rather ethnocentric.

Before the incident, the RiA received several threats on Facebook and Viber groups. According to the online posts, a bounty worth 20 – 30 million kyats (USD 20,000 – 30,000) awaits to kill Min Min and CEC Kyaw Soe Oo.

“We saw holes in the wall of one of the buildings. The explosion had a deadly intention,” Min Min shared.

In another incident, Hpasithan Journal chief editor U Zaw Ye Htet (also known as U Zaw Min Oo) was imprisoned for 14 days and released on bail on 21 March 2016. He was charged for defaming Karen State Police Commander U Sein Lwin and other Karen State authorities.

Journalists practice self-censorship out of fear of or in deference to the government and its officials. But this is not limited to the members of the press, as the pressure not to cross the line has extended to the general public.

Social media users faced defamation charges and were detained.

On 28 December 2015, a Myanmar court sentenced activist Chaw Sandi Tun to six months in prison for a Facebook post questioning the similarity of the color of the new uniform for army officers with that of a sarong worn by NLD’s Aung San Suu Kyi.

On 22 January 2016, a court in Hlaing township in Yangon sentenced Kachin activist Patrick Khum Jaa Lee to six months in prison for sharing on Facebook a photo of a man dressed in traditional Kachin longyi (sarong) stepping on the image of the army chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing.

The untold stories

The recently concluded electoral process was a political success story for Myanmar and its citizens. The relatively open and accommodating environment allowed for a diverse and acceptable press coverage of the polls nationwide.

Although the democratic exercise was deemed free and fair, some sectors found the media conduct during the process wanting. The previously ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and several ethnic parties said that the unbalanced media coverage in the recent elections put them at a disadvantage.

The 2015 national polls were the first multi-party election in the past five decades. Given limited resources and timeframe, the campaign and elections coverage tended toward popular profiles and parties. Post-elections, sentiments of a “biased” media coverage emerged.

“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 USDP in Bahan Township, Yangon.

Small and independent parties from the diverse ethnic and religious backdrop found their members and issues missing in the discussions.

Cheery Zahau is an ethnic Chin woman candidate from the Chin Progress Party (CPP), which competed in the November 8 elections. Cheery’s platforms included the removal of gender and cultural barriers in employment in Chin State, which is the poorest region in Myanmar.

Citing the lack of connection between the urgent issues of her constituency and the press’ interests in general, her campaign was barely mentioned in the news. Cheery said the trends in election coverage “focus on the wrong places.” She explained, personalities dominated the media coverage instead of voters’ issues and the candidates’ plans of action.

Following this narrative, she asked: “Who can outshine the profile of Aung San Suu Kyi in Burma’s elections?”

Moving forward

The most awaited Aung San Suu Kyi-led government is at the helm of the country. The amendment of the Constitution is definitely in the list of things to do. A political deal that is fully agreeable to the new government’s plans has yet to come into place. But the proxy power house is set up for alternatives. For sure there would be loopholes, but many are positive that what Myanmar is experiencing now is better than before.

Technocrats are appointed to crucial leadership roles. In the first days of office, political prisoners including journalists were released. These acts send an encouraging message that the new government is committed to reforms.

Relevant to Myanmar’s democratic transition is the guarantee that human rights, as press freedom and free expression, will be promoted and protected.

The government should abolish or amend laws that restrict these rights: the 1923 Official Secrets Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act, the 2013 Telecommunications Act, 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, and the 2002 Wide Area Network Order. The criminal provisions in the Penal Code on sedition (Article 124a and 505b), insulting religion (Articles 295a, 298), and defamation (Articles 499 – 502) should be removed.

Discussions on media ownership should continue. Media owners have strong connections with the junta. Do current conditions allow for access to information and diverse views? Sustainability of state- or privately-owned media is also of interest to achieving its public role.

Less than 10 privately-owned dailies are in circulation today compared to the 26 in 2013. This quick fall-out revealed unsound business models. Meanwhile, state-run dailies reap profits printing at least 200,000 copies per day.

Technology has helped the public become active users and consumers of media. The growth of mobile telecommunications and the internet equipped the public with tools to become more involved in the country’s social and political issues and developments.

Change is difficult, but so far, Myanmar proved equal to the task. The world awaits if it will continue to move in the right direction.