A gauge for democracy: media freedoms under fire in the new Myanmar
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.
A Yangon resident reads a newspaper in 2012 when the NLD was an opposition political party.