Stakeholders Push for Greater Access to Information in Burma

By Tin Htet Paing 16 November 2016

RANGOON — Burmese media stakeholders and legal experts on Tuesday stressed the need for enacting a right to information law in Burma, highlighting the failure of government organizations to provide primary information and a lack of public awareness of this right.

Former Thomson Reuters correspondent Ma Thin Lei Win facilitated the discussion, which was hosted by Phandeeyar, a technological hub that supports digital innovation. Ma Thin Lei Win said that implementing such a law would stymie corruption and graft.

“This law is very important for democratic countries as it reflects the measure of transparency that governments have and makes authorities accountable,” she said. Burma has not yet enacted a law of this sort, even though a draft of one was written during the administration of former president U Thein Sein. Stakeholders, however, criticized the draft as “overly broad and [including] unclear exemptions.”

Ko Swe Win, chief correspondent of Myanmar Now, echoed Ma Thin Lei Win regarding the need for such a law, which would make primary data available for journalists to carry out their responsibilities of verification and cross-examination of information given by sources.

He also tackled the challenges facing journalists in trying to collect official documents, given the history of media blackout characteristic of Burma’s previous governments.

“We have difficulty verifying information and doing a check-and-balance on government activities because there is lack of primary information,” he said.

He explained that the current situation in Burma is one in which information pertaining to the government mainly comes from “official” press releases or “statements” made by government officials at conferences.

“The assumption [of government officials] is that they think they’re doing enough by providing what they want to disclose when they want to disclose it,” he said.

“Official [information] is far from the truth.”

While a news media law was enacted in Burma in March 2014, Article 19—a British advocacy group promoting freedom of expression and information—said that the law “unjustifiably” limits freedom of expression, though they admitted that it was “a positive attempt to begin dismantling the extensive apparatus of censorship in the country.”

Ma Yin Yadanar Thein, Burma program manager of Article 19, highlighted the general lack of public awareness of what “information” fundamentally means, saying that the public would not be able to hold the government accountable without having information on budget allocations and policies.

She also stressed concern over the fact that there was no inclusion of an “independent” body that would decide which information should be public, and the lack of a definition on information concerning the “public interest.”

“The meaning of information is very wide,” she said. “When they [government officials] want to restrict information, they can do so without considering what kind of information is beneficial to the public interest.”

“When we say information, it must also include the definition of ‘public interest’ in the law.”

Ko Swe Win highlighted that the law should also include punishment for those who fail to provide information or manipulate information or give misinformation.

“Because there is no primary information available to journalists, we have to spend six months on an investigation that could have taken three months if we could just get the necessary information,” he said.

Having such a law would save journalists time, he explained, though he added that this barrier to information should not be used as an excuse by journalists for not conducting their reports responsibly.

Ei Myat Noe Khin, a social impact associate at Phandeeyar, talked about the importance of digital platforms for public access to information, saying that the public will only be able to make better decisions if it has access to information that would guide choices.

Celebrating the 250th anniversary of the adoption of legal protections that guarantee freedom of information and press in Sweden, the Swedish Ambassador to Thailand, Laos, and Burma shared Swedish practices and principles relating to public access to official documents.

He also said that although Sweden’s original legislation was enacted in 1766, it is still applicable to the current context of the country, and that social media platforms such as Facebook make it easier for government institutions to make information public.

Despite the  push for greater access to the information, journalists in Burma today are threatened with telecommunication laws used by the government to justify the persecution of journalists who speak unfavorably of government officials.

Currently, the Rangoon regional government filed a lawsuit against two journalists from Eleven Media Group for a Facebook post under Article 66 (d), alleging that a chief minister was involvement in corruption. The journalists are now detained at Insein Prison.

The media watchdog Committee to Protect Journalists called on the Burmese government to immediately free both journalists as well as drop all defamation charges against them on Monday.

“It’s outrageous that journalists should be imprisoned without trial, under a democratically elected government that has promised more press freedom,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in the statement.