Burma’s Draft Media Law Casts Shadow on Press Freedom

It would be a great tragedy if the current draft media law before the Hluttaw—Burma’s national level legislature—sails through. All the energy and goodwill that has been invested, especially by international and regional media organizations as well as individual journalists and academics, would be wasted. They sincerely wanted to see free media institutions in Burma take root in an emerging democratic country. To do that, the government has to provide an atmosphere, including legislative structures, conducive to free media development.

In less than two years, the media landscape inside once one of the world’s most isolated countries has been transformed and changed for the better. There is a high level of expectation that Burma’s media development would serve as a model for other developing countries to emulate. However, in the past few days, old habits have come alive and could unravel all the promises and good media work that stakeholders have painstakingly engaged in and constructed.

Burma’s quick recognition from the outside world is mainly credited to the burgeoning press freedom conditions—obviously much to the chagrin of other countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Without this local media dynamism and the enthusiasm of journalists, the media landscape would have been different. Look around at neighboring countries—their journalists are more docile. So far, print journalists are the most active and they have challenged the government’s attempts to stifle them. Judging from the number of new publications, print journalism in Burma is alive and well.

One important tool local journalists have learned—the only way to effectively counter the powers-that-be—is to get organized and obtain the highest professional media standards. That helps explain why in the past 15 months, literally all major international media organizations, news establishments and media trainers have entered the country and offered a plethora of short and long-term assistance programs. Credit must be given to the Ministry of Information and Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies for lifting the longstanding ban on media organizations and journalists.

Like the earlier days in Thailand and Indonesia, the Tatmadaw (Bumra’s military) is watching closely the impact of rapid expansion of media space.

It is interesting to note that despite the strong desire to uplift the country’s freedom of expression, the authorities, especially the security apparatus, have had to confront the downside of media freedom from within and outside since last June with the outbreak of communal violence in Arakan State and subsequently the fighting with the Kachin rebels, which received widespread and intense media coverage. In retrospect, the government evidently mishandled both events as far as information on the ground was concerned, as senior officials were in constant denial. Apart from state produced information, access to news scenes in Arakan and Kachin states was difficult but not impossible. Differing information and evidence emerged day to day in the independent press, through reports by Rangoon-based exiled journalists, and from foreign media that challenged the official versions. All these took the government by surprise.

In the past, it was not possible to publish or receive fresh and independent information or air it from non-official sources. Even though well established local publications were supportive of official information, independent information and reports on the two crises were overwhelming. These days, journalists in Burma, especially those with experience in underground reporting, have networks of information-sharing and filtering which utilize the Internet, social media and fresh information from bloggers, Twitter, and SMS. Reports about minorities are written by hundreds of former clandestine journalists, trained to report and verify information in conflict zones. They value accurate information and assessment as it affects their credibility. Even the government has constantly admitted the exiled media shows better quality and trustworthiness.

The squabbles with the media have convinced authorities to impose stronger restrictions on matters of public and national security and secret records. Item 4 in Chapter 3, on the rights of journalists, states clearly they can have no access to so-called secret documents or matters pertaining to public and national security. As in the countries with access to information laws, such as Thailand and Indonesia, the word “secret” or in certain cases “highly confidential” are used for non-security or public documents as well simply to avoid broader scrutiny. Such practices give extra power to officials to deny access or even destroy documents if need be. With such a strong factor in the draft, it is doubtful if Burma would institute a law to promote the people’s right to know.

The proposed Press Council should be independent and self-regulatory. Journalists and media personalities the author has encountered so far, both veteran and young, are capable of running a non-partisan media and regulating the body without fear or favor. The government should be open-minded and learn from the experiences of an independent press council in the region—such as Thailand and Indonesia.

Major international free media organizations—26 in total—that have regularly evaluated media conditions around the world, including Burma, are increasingly doubtful over the country’s future media trends. Coming as it does ahead of World Press Freedom Day on May 3, Burma’s positive rating and impression in the past one year would fall further among major free-media indices. The country, albeit against all odds and disbelief, has made much progress on media freedom and reforms. The ratings, despite some Western biases, are an annual ritual pivotal to providing a general picture of Burma’s latest overall developments. Confidence in foreign governments and investors are up and downs in relation to these systematic evaluations of media freedom.

Free and independent media will be a boon to Burma’s democratic development. It is to be hoped that common sense will prevail among the lawmakers when the bill is up for approval. It is clear that the benefits far exceed the negatives, which are now being drummed up by the conservatives to curtail free flow of information and demonize the media. Burma has already shown to Asean and the international community the most tangible ways the power of freedom of expression has in transforming the country from a pariah state into one of the most talked about nations on earth.

This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy

3 Responses to Burma’s Draft Media Law Casts Shadow on Press Freedom

  1. To author, thank you for your contribution. It is time to challenge the stupid with true open knowledge. When we talk about “Liberty”, who is better than John Stuart Mill?

    Mill wrote “But what! (it may be asked) Is the absence of unanimity an indispensable condition of true knowledge? Is it necessary that some part of mankind should persist in error, to enable any to realize the truth? Does a belief cease to be real and vital as soon as it is generally recieved_and is a proposition throughly understood and felt unless some doubt of it remains? As soon as mankind have unanimously accepted the truth, does the truth perish within them? The highest aim and best result of improved intelligence, it has hitherto been thought, is to unite mankind more and more in the acknowledgement of all important truths: and does the intelligence only last as long as it has not achieved its object? Do the fruits of conquest perish by the very completeness of the victory?

    Those Mill’s question must be answer when regulating press freedom. The good government is the government which govern the least and the best government is the government which do not govern at all, at least that statement is fit for the press freedom. The responsibility of the media is to report the facts without taking sides, so that society can gain knowledge and intelligence. If government threaten media with regulation, and some part of our life events can not be report or debate, how can society gain true knowledge? You may argue that government personal are smarter than any of the citizen or journalists, in reality, is it really smarter? If you argue that, just compare the state of Burma in present time and colonial era. if Burma press freedom is in better condition at colonial era than resent Thein Sein Democratic government, can we even say that we are independent and Democracy will be far more fancy word to say the least. Government should be for the people and by the people. If government is truely for the people and by the people, why should the government be fear of the people voice? Only the corrupt government should fear the voice of the people. Leave the press alone. The government should regulate itself instead of regulating the press.

  2. I should continue to share another writing piece of Mill’s “Liberty”. Mill wrote, “Their power was regarded as necessary, but also as highly dangerous; as aweapon which they would attempt to use against their subjects, no less than against external enemies. To prevent the weaker members of the community from being preyed upon by innumerable vultures, itwas needful that there should be an animal of prey stronger than the rest, commissioned to keep them down. But as the king of the vultures would be no less bent upon preying upon the flock than any of the monor harpies, it was indispensable to be in a perpetual attitude of defence against his beak and claws, The aim, therefore, of patriots, was to set limits to the power which the ruler should be suffered to exercise over the community; and this limitation was what they meant by liberty.

    The time, it is to be hoped, is gone by when any defence would be necessary of the “liberty of the press” as one of the securities against corrupt or tyrannical government. No argument, we may suppose, can now be needed, against permitting a legislature or an executive, not identified in interest with the people, to prescribe opinions to them, and determind what doctrines or what arguments they shall be allowed to hear. This aspect of the question, besides, has been so often and so triumpaantly enforced by preceding writers, that it needs not be specially insisted on in this place. Though the law of England, on the subject of the press, is as servile to this day as it was in the time of the Tudors, there is little danger of its being actually put in force against political discussion, except during some temporary panic, when fear of insurrection drives ministers and judges from their propriety; and, speaking generally, it is not, in constitutional countries, to be apprehended that the government, whether completely responsible to the people or not, will often attempt to control the expression of opinion, except when in doing so it makes itself the organ of the general intolerance of the public. Let us suppose, therefore, that the government is entirely at one with the people, and never thinks of exerting any power of coercion unless in agreement with what it conceives to be their voice. But I deny the right of the people to exercise such coercion, either by themselves or by their government. The power itself is illegitimate. The best government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more noxious, when exerted in accordance with public opinion, than when in opposition to it. If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing manking.


  3. Burma is trying to build fake democracy anyway. Thein Sein puts the generals on the top positions. They are the ones who ruined the country. All of us know that. If they are that good, Burma may not be in this position. Thein Sein is using soft power and Suu Kyi is already trapped in that snare. 2015 election will not be different from 2010 election. Dead or alive, USDP will be hanging onto power for generations and Burma will be still the same in 2030. Cronies will be the ones who enjoy life, not the citizens. Burmese way to democracy will be just for the current elite people.

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