RANGOON — Burma’s election oversight body has proposed overreaching restrictions for reporters covering a Nov. 8 general election, journalists told The Irrawaddy, that would limit the number and movement of credentialed correspondents on the day of the vote.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) sent a letter to the Interim Press Council earlier this month laying out guidelines for covering the polls. A copy of the letter obtained by The Irrawaddy states that registered news organizations can assign a maximum of three reporters to each township, and that those assigned must apply with the relevant sub-commission.
Once an applicant has submitted proof of dispatch from a legally recognized media outlet, the sub-commission will issue them a press identification card authorizing them to report on the polls in the township in which they applied.
Media professionals pointed out that attempts to monitor and limit the number of reporters in each locale could effectively restrict them to that area, as the location-specific credential might not be valid in a place beyond its point of issue.
“It is unclear if reporters will be able to move to another township from the one they are registered in,” said Thet Zin, editor-in-chief of the New Era weekly journal. Concerned that the small paper will not have enough reporters to thoroughly cover the polls if their positions are static, Thet Zin predicted that election reporting “will be difficult.”
This time it seems like the UEC is trying to control people’s right to know.”
Kyaw Min Swe, secretary of the Interim Press Council, said that a meeting will be held on Sunday between the UEC and concerned journalists to discuss ambiguities in the instructions. While the UEC claims that the directive is meant to ensure that all journalists covering the election will be bound to the commission’s media code of conduct with some degree of accountability, members of the press view the process as inherently flawed and susceptible to abuse.
“There were no such rules limiting the number of journalists during the 2010 and 2012 elections,” Kyaw Min Swe said, “but this time it seems like the UEC is trying to control people’s right to know.”
The secretary said the issue will be discussed at length with the commission during their meeting on Sunday, voicing firmly that the media “won’t follow this rule.”
When contacted by The Irrawaddy on Friday, the UEC declined to comment on the rationale behind the new rules or whether they were likely to be amended. The current regulations include a Nov. 5 deadline for reporters to register with local subcommissions, so there is still some time to make changes.
According to the Ministry of Information, 31 daily newspaper licenses have been granted since early 2013, following decades of strict censorship under Burma’s former military regime. Of those, however, only 21 papers are currently in operation, reflecting severe financial strains in the burgeoning media industry. Of those 21 newspapers, seven are state-owned. About 400 weekly journals and 300 magazines are currently in circulation.
Correction: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the deadline for reporters to register with election subcommissions was Aug. 5. The deadline is in fact Nov. 5.