A re­spon­si­ble press can help em­power Myan­mar's young grow­ing democ­racy

A freer me­dia is crit­i­cal to the coun­try’s po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion, but it is also time for more re­spon­si­ble jour­nal­ism

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - TREVOR WIL­SON news­room@mm­times.com Trevor Wil­son is a vis­it­ing fel­low at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Coral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs, a for­mer Aus­tralian am­bas­sador to Myan­mar and au­thor of Eye­wit­ness to Early Re­form in Myan­mar. This ar­tic

AS a vo­ra­cious con­sumer of Myan­mar jour­nal­ism over some time, I am fas­ci­nated by how the coun­try’s tran­si­tion to free­dom of the press takes root and pros­pers.

Progress to­ward press free­dom has oc­curred very rapidly in Myan­mar since 2012, but we still see too many in­stances of jour­nal­ists be­ing de­tained and even charged over what they have pub­lished.

I am not an ex­pert on Myan­mar’s his­tory of gov­ern­ment-con­trolled me­dia, but am con­scious of the great re­spect that Myan­mar so­ci­ety has al­ways ac­corded its writ­ers who sought to in­flu­ence and im­prove at­ti­tudes of pub­lic pol­icy. In some ways, even “rou­tine” re­port­ing of events and de­vel­op­ments to­day by Myan­mar jour­nal­ists con­tin­ues this tra­di­tion.

I am also con­scious of the pit­falls of ex­ces­sively cau­tious “self-cen­sor­ship” that U Pe Myint, now the min­is­ter for in­for­ma­tion, warned about when he at­tended the 2011 Myan­mar Up­date con­fer­ence at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity.

At that time, U Pe Myint was ed­i­tor-in-chief of the Peo­ple’s Age. The Thein Sein gov­ern­ment’s re­lax­ation of print cen­sor­ship did not take ef­fect un­til 2012.

I also agree with the views of for­mer Myan­mar Times jour­nal­ist Ma Nwe Nwe Aye about the valu­able role that an open me­dia can play in coun­tries like Myan­mar in com­bat­ing cor­rup­tion, or in rais­ing pub­lic aware­ness and pro­tect­ing po­lit­i­cal in­tegrity in other mean­ing­ful ways.

I am con­vinced that Myan­mar’s me­dia has a crit­i­cal role to play in help­ing con­sol­i­date democ­racy, as democ­racy can­not be achieved by po­lit­i­cal prac­ti­tion­ers alone, and can­not ful­fil its goals in prac­tice with­out full and ex­plicit pub­lic en­dorse­ment.

The en­thu­si­asm with which Myan­mar jour­nal­ists have since 2012 con­sis­tently ex­posed sen­si­tive is­sues and ex­plained on­go­ing protests and prob­lems is un­doubt­edly praise­wor­thy. In many cases, me­dia re­port­ing has en­sured gov­ern­ment pol­icy has been held to ac­count and the in­ter­ests of or­di­nary peo­ple (such as work­ers, land hold­ers and vic­tims of dis­crim­i­na­tion) have been bet­ter pro­tected.

In many cases, of course, such me­dia cov­er­age has meant crit­i­cism of gov­ern­ment poli­cies or prac­tices that may have caused dis­com­fort and per­haps even anger on the part of the au­thor­i­ties. Much of the gov­ern­ment sen­si­tiv­ity was ex­ag­ger­ated and may have been un­nec­es­sary or avoid­able.

One cause of such prob­lems may be the ab­sence of ad­e­quate laws in Myan­mar to pro­tect jour­nal­ists who pub­lish em­bar­rass­ing in­for­ma­tion, to im­prove the scope for the peo­ple to ob­tain proper re­dress through the ju­di­cial sys­tem, and to pun­ish those who have vi­o­lated the law but who in­for­mally en­joy a mea­sure of im­punity.

Another phe­nom­e­non in Myan­mar might be the will­ing­ness of jour­nal­ists to ac­cept crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment un­crit­i­cally. This is prob­a­bly not sur­pris­ing, given the his­tory of gov­ern­ment con­trol and the lack of trust that de­vel­oped as a con­se­quence, as well as the in­cip­i­ent na­ture of a freer press. Jour­nal­ists also may not be able to ob­tain clar­i­fi­ca­tion of gov­ern­ment po­si­tions, while it is also true that law en­force­ment in Myan­mar is of­ten friv­o­lous and is pur­su­ing another, po­lit­i­cal agenda.

In this sit­u­a­tion, greater mu­tual re­straint by both sides may help.

Au­thor­i­ties should re­frain from re­spond­ing with ex­ces­sive force against protesters. And jour­nal­ists any­where must ex­er­cise care about the mo­tives be­hind any ac­tion they re­port, and re­mem­ber their re­spon­si­bil­ity to ver­ify the truth, rather than to re­peat un­sub­stan­ti­ated in­for­ma­tion, par­tic­u­larly in highly sen­si­tive ar­eas such as na­tional se­cu­rity. The de­ci­sion to dis­close in­for­ma­tion must be made ju­di­ciously, keep­ing in mind both the pub­lic in­ter­est and the re­li­a­bil­ity of sources.

In coun­tries like Aus­tralia, we are for­tu­nate to have a range of for­mal, legal pro­tec­tions which, while not al­ways per­fect, go a long way to en­sur­ing the over­all sys­tem op­er­ates fairly. For ex­am­ple, we have strong defama­tion laws to pro­tect in­di­vid­ual rep­u­ta­tions (typ­i­cally not used for other pur­poses by any gov­ern­ment). We also have “whis­tle-blower pro­tec­tion” laws, which al­low abuses of author­ity to be chal­lenged with­out the dis­closer of the in­for­ma­tion be­ing un­fairly pe­nalised.

Aus­tralia also has a sys­tem of legal aid for those who would not nor­mally be able to af­ford a lawyer and the costs of mount­ing a law­suit, and ar­range­ments through an in­de­pen­dent Press Coun­cil to en­sure me­dia re­port­ing is not mis­chievous, de­struc­tive or in some way un­rea­son­able. Com­plain­ing to the Press Coun­cil would nor­mally be a last re­sort, and not of­ten used.

Myan­mar’s de­ci­sion to es­tab­lish a press coun­cil may be wel­come, but it will prob­a­bly not be fully ef­fec­tive on its own.

Gen­er­ally, me­dia re­port­ing in Aus­tralia is also sub­ject to more in­for­mal scru­tiny, of­ten by peers, so that jour­nal­ists are en­cour­aged to up­hold high stan­dards of in­tegrity and not tempted to seek ma­li­cious or cor­rupt gains from me­dia cov­er­age.

After so many years of iso­la­tion, Myan­mar’s me­dia have op­por­tu­ni­ties to learn from the ex­pe­ri­ences of oth­ers.

Me­dia re­port­ing has en­sured gov­ern­ment pol­icy has been held to ac­count and the in­ter­ests of or­di­nary peo­ple have been bet­ter pro­tected.

Photo: Staff

Peo­ple pe­ruse news­pa­pers at a ven­dor in Yangon. A loos­en­ing of pre­vi­ously strict cen­sor­ship be­gan in 2012, al­low­ing space for me­dia to flour­ish.

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