RANGOON — For Thiha Saw, the general election held earlier this month was a revelation.
As an experienced journalist and editor who had covered the country’s most recent polls—the 2010 general election and a 2012 by-election—he viewed the in-depth coverage of this year’s vote as something of a watershed moment for local media after years of restrictions.
“They really did a good job,” said Thiha Saw, who is now executive director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute, the country first private journalism school which opened last year and has conducted an informal survey on the country’s election-related media coverage.
Thiha Saw is not alone in his positive assessment of local election reporting. Several foreign journalists who have long covered Southeast Asia, including Burma, concurred.
“The [local] English-language press, I think, did a very fine and thorough job covering the election and the run-up to the polls. From what I read I think it was generally balanced and informative,” said Denis D. Gray, former Bangkok Bureau chief for the Associated Press.
Throughout the official campaigning period, which began in early September, local media was active throughout the country, covering everything from the well-supported political rallies of Aung San Suu Kyi to ruling party rallies where some participants reported being offered incentives to attend.
Local media helped bring to light allegations of vote buying involving members of the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP); it also relentlessly asked questions of the Union Election Commission (UEC) over issues including voter list errors, advance votes and other polling procedures—prompting commission chair Tin Aye to complain that the UEC was “being hurt by the media.”
When the big day came on Nov. 8, numerous local outlets were humming with blog rolls and live updates across various media platforms, with reporters feeding back information from constituencies across the country.
Journalist, author and Burma expert Bertil Lintner was in the country on polling day and observed reporters “in action.”
“I think by and large the Burmese journalists did a good job covering the election. They did an especially good job as ‘election monitors.’ They kept a close eye on fraud and irregularities and were first to report on that from, for instance, Lashio and Myitkyina,” Lintner said.
Shawn Crispin, a senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said many local journalists took seriously their watchdog role and their presence probably helped curb any temptation to manipulate results through tactics such as bogus advance votes that marred the fraudulent 2010 poll.
“Reporters were fanned out across the country, reporting critically on individual races between NLD and USDP candidates. The local media served its fourth estate role well,” Crispin said.
New Press Freedoms
Thiha Saw said a key reason behind the media’s vibrant coverage of this year’s vote was the demise of draconian media censorship in the country. Prior to 2012, printed materials awaiting publication were required to seek the approval of the state-run Press Scrutiny Board.
Thiha Saw recalled the restrictions that hampered media coverage of the military-orchestrated 2010 general election that ushered in the USDP.
“When we wrote a critical story about either the USDP or electoral irregularities at the time, the whole piece was scrapped by the censorship board,” he said.
Shawn Crispin said CPJ’s recent monitoring of election-related media coverage, particularly in comparison with the highly censored environment in 2010, showed a marked improvement that represented “a proud moment for Burma’s emerging independent media.”
But despite unprecedented coverage of the poll, private Burmese media was not without flaws, according to a media monitoring report released by the Myanmar Institute for Democracy two days before the vote.
“Private print, online media and foreign radio services covered the campaign more intensively, focusing primarily on the two main frontrunners—the NLD and the USDP. Most of them openly supported the NLD party and criticized the USDP and state officials,” said the report, which was based on a two-month research window.
Shawn Crispin said the media monitoring report was a fairly accurate assessment.
“Though I would note that many private newspapers were critical of the NLD and even Aung San Suu Kyi on the campaign trail,” he added.
In Denis Gray’s view, coverage of the Nov. 8 vote underlined the broader parameters in which journalists could now operate.
“If you consider that Thai journalists, for example, have had decades of relative freedom, I would say that Myanmar journalists have caught up and in many cases surpassed their neighbors in solid journalism in a very short space of time,” he said.