To truly honor the principles of press freedom, Burma must be free from restrictive laws like Article 66(d), state- and military-owned media, and joint-ventured media between the state and cronies. The government is responsible for creating an atmosphere where independent media can thrive professionally, ethically and commercially with laws guaranteeing the right to information.
With these aspirations yet to be realized, neither journalists nor citizens can freely honor World Press Freedom Day, which falls on May 3.
We journalists wake up every morning fearing that bad “luck” will strike us—if influential players in the government or military or other powerful institutions have assumed that our stories published the day before “defamed” them.
During the current National League for Democracy (NLD) government’s first year of leadership, Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law has been used to initiate 56 defamation cases for “inappropriate” posts on social media.
Of these 56 incidents, 12 journalists were charged and many of them are still awaiting trial.
The article, enacted in 2013 under the previous government, bans the use of a telecommunications network to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence or intimidate.” The 56 cases filed since NLD government took power greatly outnumber those filed under the previous quasi-civilian government—just seven.
That is not what we expected to see under the country’s first civilian-led administration headed by de-facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
The act has become an instrument misused by those in power, who turn to 66(d) rather than more standard defamation charges described in penal codes.
The chief minister of Rangoon Division and NLD member U Phyo Min Thein filed charges against Eleven Media CEO and its editor, Dr. Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo, as having violated Article 66(d) after the CEO wrote a story describing an unconfirmed bribery case concerning the chief minister.
A military official charged NLD member U Myo Yan Naung Thein under the same statute after he shared Facebook posts deemed defamatory to the military commander-in-chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. He was sentenced to six months in jail.
We are likely to see more charges against individuals or journalists under Article 66(d) unless the NLD government or the NLD-dominated Parliaments repeal or amend this law for the sake of protecting freedom of expression.
State Media Continues
In December, just one month after the 2015 election, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi told Radio Free Asia (RFA), “State-owned newspapers are not working in accordance with democratic practices. But we will not change them overnight. We will discuss it, but we don’t want [it] to take too long. It will improve the country.”
Over the past year, however, we haven’t heard any further discussion on this issue within the NLD government.
Today, three state-owned newspapers—two in Burmese and one in English—continue to be published without much variation from the editorial stances taken adopted under the military regime. The objective of such outlets is to cover the activities of the government and to reflect its policies.
“Radio and television stations in the US and UK, like the VOA and BBC, are state funded. But they are independent. They can work freely within their charters. It is important to work independently with freedom,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi also said in the same RFA interview.
But in Burma, all broadcast media—including TV channels and radio stations—are still controlled by the ruling government, the military, and cronies. We haven’t seen any clear plan detailing how to transform them into a public service.
This situation concerning the media is likely related to the country’s complicated political landscape, particularly concerning the role of the powerful army.
Perhaps the government’s decision to keep state-run media was an attempt to counter the presence of military-run media like Myawaddy TV and Myawaddy Daily newspaper in Burmese.
But no matter the reason, state-owned newspapers cannot co-exist with democratic principles—Daw Aung San Suu Kyi clearly said that these publications are not helping the country’s democratization process.
When it comes to advancing our right to information, it does not feel like much has changed under this government. Some high-ranking officials in the government and key members of the NLD are patronizing and rude when they talk to journalists. Such attitudes need to be changed. Those in power should realize that independent media contributes to good governance, anti-corruption and development.
The NLD manifesto released in 2015 clearly states: “The news media is the eyes and ears of the people. We will ensure that the media has the right to stand independently in accordance with self-regulation of matters relating to ethics and dignity, and the right to gather and disseminate news.”
What the NLD government must do is implement necessary measures to achieve what the party stated in this manifesto. We journalists, as well as all citizens, are anxiously waiting for that time to come, which will further our progress in the path toward democratization.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of The Irrawaddy’s English edition.