A gauge for democ­racy: me­dia free­doms un­der fire in the new Myan­mar

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - DAVID ANGELES news­room@mm­times.com David Angeles is a pro­gram of­fi­cer for South­east Asia at the Na­tional En­dow­ment for Democ­racy.

WITH last Novem­ber’s land­slide elec­tion vic­tory of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s Na­tional League for Democ­racy, the out­look for a suc­cess­ful demo­cratic tran­si­tion in Myan­mar seems more pos­i­tive than ever. Ar­guably, it was the ini­tial open­ing of the me­dia en­vi­ron­ment un­der then-pres­i­dent U Thein Sein, in­clud­ing the end of of­fi­cial govern­ment cen­sor­ship and the is­suance of pub­li­ca­tion li­cences to dozens of in­de­pen­dent news­pa­pers across the coun­try, that left many to con­clude that the stage for con­crete re­forms was fi­nally set and that Myan­mar was on the right po­lit­i­cal track. With all tran­si­tions, how­ever, the devil is in the de­tails. The first peace­ful trans­fer of par­lia­men­tary power to a demo­crat­i­cally elected party should no doubt be cause for op­ti­mism, but if the me­dia en­vi­ron­ment in the new Myan­mar re­mains a gauge for tran­si­tion suc­cess, by no means should these ini­tial vic­to­ries over­shadow the very real chal­lenges that re­main.

Just last month, as US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s ad­min­is­tra­tion lifted all re­main­ing US sanc­tions on the coun­try, two dif­fer­ent courts found jour­nal­ists guilty of defama­tion un­der pe­nal code ar­ti­cle 500. In the first case, a writer for the Te­nasserim Weekly Jour­nal was sued by the Delco Ltd min­ing com­pany af­ter pub­lish­ing a cre­ative piece writ­ten from the per­spec­tive of a fish be­ing neg­a­tively af­fected by the pol­lu­tion and de­struc­tion of its river habi­tat. Notably, Delco Ltd was not even men­tioned in the writ­ing, yet the com­pany’s in­ter­est in stymieing any sort of dis­cus­sion for the con­cern of en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues trumped those of the broader pub­lic, and the case was still car­ried out to con­vic­tion.

In the sec­ond case, two jour­nal­ists from the Pa-O-lan­guage news­pa­per The Peo­ple’s Voice, which is pub­lished and dis­trib­uted in and around Taung­gyi, the cap­i­tal of Shan State, were con­victed af­ter ex­pos­ing a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal leader’s ex­tor­tion of vil­lagers for the fund­ing of a per­sonal birth­day cel­e­bra­tion. In both cases, the con­demned jour­nal­ists were given the choice of ei­ther pay­ing a fine of K30,000 (ap­prox­i­mately US$24) or spend­ing one month in prison. The fine was the ob­vi­ous choice, yet de­spite the nom­i­nal fee, the length of time it took to try each case – over four and 15 months, re­spec­tively – no doubt in­hib­ited these jour­nal­ists’ abil­i­ties to carry out their work ef­fec­tively. In the lat­ter case, travel and lo­gis­tics costs to at­tend bi-weekly court hear­ings of­ten ex­ceeded the monthly salaries of the ac­cused jour­nal­ists. While many jour­nal­ists are al­ready strug­gling to sur­vive on shoe­string bud­gets, the threat of defama­tion and the po­ten­tial for fi­nan­cially ru­inous court cases has ef­fec­tively taken the place of Myan­mar’s cen­sor­ship board by push­ing jour­nal­ists to self-cen­sor and kow­tow to the same power struc­tures that ex­isted un­der mil­i­tary rule.

And if this new era of self­cen­sor­ship isn’t bad enough, it is also im­por­tant to note that both the plain­tiffs and the de­fen­dants in the case of The Peo­ple’s Voice were from the Pa-O eth­nic com­mu­nity. Un­like most eth­nic mi­nori­ties in the coun­try, the Pa-O largely set­tled their griev­ances with the Tat­madaw with a cease­fire in 1991 that even­tu­ally led to the cre­ation of an eth­nic self-ad­min­is­tered zone (SAZ) spread across three town­ships in south­ern Shan State. This SAZ is de facto gov­erned by the Pa-O Na­tional Or­ga­ni­za­tion (PNO), which dou­bles as a po­lit­i­cal party at the state and na­tional lev­els, and is con­nected to an armed wing, the Pa-O Na­tional Army. With the is­sues of eth­nic cease­fires among dozens of armed eth­nic groups and fed­er­al­ism be­ing the largest fac­tors for con­sol­i­dat­ing the coun­try’s peace­ful demo­cratic tran­si­tion, the defama­tion suit brought against The Peo­ple’s Age jour­nal­ists by a PNO leader shows just how firmly ce­mented the au­thor­i­tar­ian power struc­tures are among Myan­mar’s eth­nic com­mu­ni­ties.

If Myan­mar’s po­lit­i­cal tran­si­tion is to truly suc­ceed, fun­da­men­tal rights – in­clud­ing the free­doms of ex­pres­sion and in­for­ma­tion – must be pri­ori­tised by the NLD govern­ment by speak­ing out against the pro­lif­er­a­tion of flimsy, liti­gious tac­tics. Fur­ther­more, if the case of The Peo­ple’s Age serves as a har­bin­ger for in­tra-eth­nic re­la­tions, eth­nic me­dia and civil so­ci­ety ac­tivists will need to work not only on push­ing for an in­clu­sive peace and po­lit­i­cal agree­ment with the cen­tral govern­ment, but also to pre­pare their own lead­ers for the type of open me­dia en­vi­ron­ment that a true democ­racy re­ally needs. In the mean­time, the in­ter­na­tional me­dia de­vel­op­ment com­mu­nity would do well to expand its fo­cus in the coun­try beyond ca­pac­ity build­ing to ac­tively fos­ter and sup­port ac­tivist cam­paigns work­ing to cre­ate a freer

The threat of defama­tion and the po­ten­tial for fi­nan­cially ru­inous court cases has ef­fec­tively taken the place of Myan­mar’s cen­sor­ship board by push­ing jour­nal­ists to self-cen­sor and kow­tow to the same power struc­tures that ex­isted un­der mil­i­tary rule.

me­dia land­scape as well as pro­vide more re­sources for emer­gency le­gal and liveli­hood sup­port to jour­nal­ists and oth­ers af­fected by spu­ri­ous claims of defama­tion. – This post orig­i­nally ap­peared on the web­site of the Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Me­dia As­sis­tance and is pub­lished here with permission. The Cen­ter for In­ter­na­tional Me­dia As­sis­tance (CIMA) is a think tank based in Washington, DC, that works to pro­mote di­verse and in­no­va­tive me­dia sys­tems for an in­formed pub­lic around the world.

Photo: AFP

A Yan­gon res­i­dent reads a news­pa­per in 2012 when the NLD was an op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal party.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Myanmar

© PressReader. All rights reserved.