Will COVID-19 Lockdown Restrictions on Myanmar News Media Undermine the Work of Journalists During a Time of National Crisis?

By The Irrawaddy 10 October 2020

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll be discussing the Myanmar media environment amid the latest wave of COVID-19. When the government imposed a second lockdown and designated essential industries [which are exempted from stay-at-home orders during the lockdown], the Myanmar media were not on the essential industry list. Members of the Myanmar Press Council and journalists U Myint Kyaw and U Chit Win Maung join me to discuss the difficulties facing journalists in reporting under the current circumstances. I’m Ye Ni, The Irrawaddy’s Burmese editor.

Most of the news agencies have been working remotely since the second COVID-19 wave emerged. Journalists have been reporting from home as suggested by the Information Ministry. But for photojournalists and video journalists to do their jobs, it’s necessary to go into the field.  They have to go out from time to time. But whenever they are outside, they feel at risk and are concerned that they will be arrested and charged under the Disaster Management Law. What is your view on this U Chit Win Maung?

Chit Win Maung: News media were not among the businesses that were exempted from the stay-at-home order. While editors can still work from home or office, certain situations might require reporters to go into the field for reporting. In that case, it is difficult for them to do their jobs. It has been said that traffic police carry out checks on vehicles. For example, if you live in Kyimyindaing and you are found driving in Kyauktada, they will require a valid reason for your presence there. Journalists can’t travel freely, and they feel at risk.

After the government imposed the latest lockdown [in the fourth week of September], news agencies, except Eleven Media, released statements and said they would temporarily suspend operations. Only one newspaper has continued publishing without interruption. All of the others, including 7 Days and The Myanmar Times, temporarily suspended [publication]. But some have been in circulation again recently. As far as I know, journalists for news agencies had been working from home already [even before the government imposed the second lockdown]. But reporters, photojournalists and video journalists must be able to go into the field.

We provide information to the public. It is important for people to be able to differentiate between right and wrong information during a crisis like this. There is a lot of misinformation on Facebook, and some people simply believe those reports. Mainstream media agencies like yours must be able to report freely. Only then will they be able to provide correct information to the public. So, the Press Council has expressed our concerns to the Information Ministry and other authorities. But they have not responded.

YN: Yes, we saw that the Press Council has issued a statement about it. We were exempt from stay-at-home orders during the first wave, but I don’t understand why we are not exempt now. Not only local media, but also international media have been looking for an answer. A recent issue of The New York Times said the restrictions were harmful to press freedom in Myanmar. U Myint Kyaw, what is your opinion?

Myint Kyaw: The government announced on Sept. 20 that except for banking and financial services, medicine and food supplies, all other businesses must close. Media were also restricted. I don’t think the government simply forgot to exempt media. Maybe the government thought state-owned media would be sufficient to keep the public informed and that people could also get information from health authorities. The government failed to exempt the media, in my view, because it does not understand the nature of the media environment. Or it believes private media are not important.

The same day the government made its announcement, news agencies asked the Myanmar Press Council how they should operate, and the Press Council, the following day, asked the Health Ministry to exempt the media. Three days later, the government issued another announcement, exempting customs agents, logistics, and relief flights from stay-at-home orders. Again, the media were not included. So, we sent a request again.

When the Health Ministry did not respond, we sent the request to the President’s Office. That office replied that it had received our letter, but it did not say whether it would exempt the media from stay-at-home orders, nor explain why it decided not to exempt the media.

Journalists need to go into the field, and we want to be able to do so in line with the law.  Journalists will only go out for reporting when it is necessary; otherwise they can work from home. And if they have to go out, they will surely follow health guidelines. No one wants to get infected. Editors should also provide guidelines for reporters about how to protect themselves from infection by the coronavirus.

A few days ago, photos showing dozens of ambulances in front of Yangon General Hospital were shared online, and it was said that COVID-19 patients from the hospital would be moved to other medical facilities. It was late in the evening, and we can’t do our reporting just based on Facebook posts. You may say we can contact the hospital authorities for comment. But the hospital was kept very busy with patients. In such circumstances, reporters need to go to the field and confirm it before the [12 a.m.-4 a.m.] curfew begins. Reporters need to verify it to prevent public panic due to exaggerated or fabricated accounts online. And there might also be deliberate fabrication in order to distract public attention. This is particularly dangerous now that we’re dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak in the election campaign period.

My point is that the Ministry of Health and the Central Committee for Prevention, Control and Treatment of COVID-19 should realize the important role that news media play and should be aware that the media are an essential business. That’s what other countries do. Information provided by the government alone is not enough at this time. There is a need to report independently what is needed on the ground like hospitals, quarantine centers, markets and so on. And private media usually focus on reporting such things. The state media only provide information one way. They also do not have editorial policies that present opportunities for public feedback and that focus on the problems and difficulties people are facing. So, it is quite a wrong notion to think that state-owned media alone are enough. Authorities that impose restrictions should be aware of the important public information role of media. Though this program, I would like to ask the government once again to exempt the media.

YN: Yes, we need to keep pushing the government. U Chit Win Maung, you recently wrote an article in which you argue that print media are on the verge of collapse. My parents are in their 80s, and they are not used to reading news online. Daily, they rely on print media. Since many newspapers have suspended operations, they now have to rely on television and state-owned newspapers. U Chit Win Maung, what do you want to say about the government’s attitude toward private media, including print media?

CWM: State-owned newspapers alone are not enough in any country. What people really want to read is independent private newspapers, because they report from the ground and reflect the voices of the people, as Ko Myint Kyaw has said.

All of a sudden, those newspapers have had to suspend operation, and I feel sorry about that and have wondered why the independent media situation has worsened in our country. There must be a respected and reliable newspaper in every country. It feels really good to see the eye-catching newspapers with impressive headlines at hotels when we travel internationally. They are independent newspapers. The image and dignity of a country is well represented by its newspapers. So, I wrote the article expressing sadness about the situation in our country. I’m concerned about the future of private newspapers. The government should consider the circumstances in which journalists have to work. If it does not, the private media sector will collapse.

Speaking frankly, we totally believe in the Fourth Estate. It is the pillar that points out the shortcomings of the three other pillars in our country. We believe the Fourth Estate is important. It’s necessary to be able to exercise checks and balances on the other three pillars. Without the private media sector, our country will be devoid of checks and balances. Currently, due to the restrictions, some news agencies have suspended operations. If they can no longer survive financially and all the private newspapers disappear, our country will lose its dignity. I mean there must be independent private newspapers, without them a country can’t maintain its dignity.

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