Local and international media have Burma under the microscope as the 2010 general elections draw near, with constant news, analyses, articles and interviews. But amid the country’s notoriously heavy censorship, the local independent media have been able to exercise relative fairness in reporting ahead of the 7 November election, the first nationwide polls for 20 years, according to some private news journal editors.
Some popular Rangoon-based journals, such as “The Myanmar Times”, “The Yangon Times”, “The Weekly”, “The Voice Weekly” and “The Monitor”, are able to report on the elections in separate sections.
Even so, the state censorship has restricted news faulting the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) and news and articles recounting anything about the 1990 general elections, won in a landslide by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party. She remains under house arrest after spending at least 15 of the years since her victory in detention, the current term against which she is appealing in Burma’s top court.
Mizzima spoke to the editor of a journal that mainly publishes news and asked about the conditions under which journals are being printed in the run-up to the elections.
“We can write … encouraging the public to vote in the election. But news and columns attacking parties, especially the USDP, are rejected [by state censors],” the editor said. “We have to take that kind of news very seriously.”
“It is also unacceptable to retell some of the events of 1990. We can’t report how free it was or how it was conducted, but on many other matters we can report and print stories,” he said.
An editor from another journal said that there was a new openness towards political coverage.
“If we look at the past 20 years, this is the freest time to write about news on political parties and to report on politics in general. In the past, some elected representatives from political parties were imprisoned for their political activities and detained for various reasons. We couldn’t report about these politicians. Now that the election is going to be held soon, especially since the polls were announced, we have been quite free to report about political parties.
“It is more open than before,” the second journal editor said.
However, a Rangoon resident said people read journals because they wanted to know about the political parties and candidates standing in the election, but financial constraints meant the number of people who have access to these journals was still low.
“The sector of the population that can afford to buy these journals is quite small. It is impossible to gain a proper picture about the parties and their candidates … We find journals to read about political parties, their candidates, what they promise to do for the people, how the situation is different between the past election and this one, and how they can promote human rights and freedom. Then we can obtain a balanced view of their positions.”
However, a female resident of Mandalay said many voters were uninterested in the election.
“I see many journals report this and that political news but I don’t read them because I can’t understand the issues and I’m not interested in the subject. I can’t spend much time thinking about it as I’m far too busy,” the woman said.
Dr. Than Win, an organiser of the National Democratic Force (NDF) party, which broke away from Suu Kyi’s NLD party to take part in the polls, spoke to Mizzima about how private media are proving to be a way for political parties to go around obstacles the junta had put up to prevent parties’ access to state-run media.
The political parties were allowed to use state media only once for campaigning, but the independent candidates were prevented from enjoying the same right to broadcast their policies on state television and were rendered ineligible to state them in daily newspapers. For that reason, the local private media outlets have been essential for politicians to reach the public, he said.
“The [private] media is very important to our political activities because they and our policies are not reported in the state media. We were only allowed to broadcast once on state television. But people can access quite freely what political parties are doing in the private journals, which are published weekly. As we can’t access state media, we have to rely on private media. As media are reporting our activities, people will know what political parties are doing and it could raise their interest. I believe that in this way, they will help us to victory in the election.”
U Zozam, chairman of the Chin National Party said that when parties were reporting their policies and positions in the state media, the junta had heavily censored them.
“On state TV, I talked about how the Union Solidarity and Development Association was transformed into the USDP but my comments were not aired. We can access [the electorate] through TV in the countryside but many journals aren’t distributed here. I stated my party’s policies for about 15 minutes on state TV and almost five minutes were cut. As we are living in the Chin mountains, it is very difficult to explain policies to people in a 10-minute speech.”
While the political parties have praised the role of the private media, state media reported last week that Thein Soe, chairman of the junta’s electoral watchdog, the Union Election Commission, had banned international media and independent monitors from entering Burma in the run-up to the polls.
Burma’s press freedom flourished prior to the 1962 military coup, making it one of the freest among Asian countries for independent media, with more than 30 daily newspapers published. Now, Burma publishes only two state-controlled daily newspapers and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index ranks it 174 out of 178 countries.