RANGOON — Last week’s decision to ban reporters from observing sessions of the Union Parliament has been extended to meetings of both houses of the legislature, in what journalists say is a sign of backtracking on press freedoms.
On the morning of May 26, reporters were told that they were no longer allowed access to a media observation booth above the Union Parliament chamber, claiming they were offered no explanation and no date at which they would be allowed back in.
The ban was extended to the Lower House on Wednesday, and the Upper house followed suit on Monday of this week.
Many speculated that the decision was prompted by unflattering photos and videos captured in the booth, including an image of lawmakers asleep during a session and a photograph that appeared to show a military lawmaker voting on behalf of his absent neighbor.
Journalists who regularly cover parliamentary sessions said they now watch the proceedings on a television monitor outside the chambers, broadcast exclusively by state-media.
Reporters also said that they used to receive a daily printout of the agenda for each joint session, but now they are offered only one to share among the crowd of journalists. Journalists now take turns using their cell phones to photograph the agenda, which is posted on a bulletin board in the hallway outside the chambers.
The Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN) tried to negotiate with Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann, but has thus far been unsuccessful. MJN secretary Myint Kyaw said the Parliament does not appear close to backtracking on the ban, as “the situation is worse now because they have closed all the houses.”
Negotiations with the Lower House resulted in an initial compromise that many journalists found unsatisfactory, whereby the media would soon be allowed to observe from the back of the chamber but still denied access to the media booth. Video journalists said that the arrangement was impractical, as they could not oversee the entire chamber from that vantage point. Parliament officials could not be reached for comment on Tuesday.
BBC reporter Aung Thu Ra, who regularly attends the sessions, told The Irrawaddy that the ban creates unnecessary obstacles for journalists.
“They let us in before, but now they’ve closed it, which makes work difficult for photographers and videographers,” Aung Thu Ra said, stressing that “reporters need to be able to look at the activity of lawmakers for reporting.”