RANGOON — If we Burmese have one thing to be thankful for on this World Press Freedom Day, it is that this year there are no journalists behind bars, imprisoned for doing their jobs. As was the case for pro-democracy activists and other dissidents, prison cells in Burma were once frequently home to reporters—both under the oppressive former junta and during the term of the quasi-civilian government that succeeded it.
Shortly after the country’s first civilian government in some 50 years assumed office on April 1, the administration released four journalists and their publication’s CEO, together with nearly 300 other political prisoners and others on trial for politically motivated offenses.
This condition—prisons without journalists—is a low but important bar for any country assessing its press freedom. Subjected to decades of censorship and persecution, a new era has dawned for Burmese journalists, but work toward consolidating a truly free and independent press remains.
There are several matters that must still be addressed to pave the way for genuine press freedom in Burma, and in this the new National League for Democracy (NLD) government has a crucial role to play. The NLD’s ruling predecessors were reliably hostile to the press and regarded private media as their enemy, while simultaneously using state-run newspapers and broadcasters to peddle government propaganda.
The new government has vowed to take a different approach.
“The news media is the eyes and ears of the people,” reads part of the NLD’s election manifesto, released ahead of the November vote. “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.”
The manifesto continues: “We will support the rights of television and radio broadcasters, print media (magazines, journals, newspapers, etc), and telephone and internet service providers to compete openly on the free market.”
We journalists love this vision and are anxious to see how the NLD-led government will make it a reality as soon as possible.
But for now, though state media’s content is decidedly more “newsy” than it was under the previous administrations, the fact remains: government-run dailies and broadcasters continue to exist with the government’s agenda in mind.
As a rule, the Fourth Estate should serve as an independent actor, not affiliated with any political party, including that of the ruling government. Only then can the media perform its duty as watchdog of all other political, business and social institutions.
Thus, we in the private media are waiting to see what changes are in store. The status quo cannot hold for the next five years if the NLD is genuine in the aims laid out in its manifesto.
Furthermore, restrictive laws that have been and could again be used to muzzle the media remain on the books should be revoked as soon as possible. Media laws enacted by the previous government should be reviewed to ensure that they promote press freedom and protect journalists.
Unesco’s theme for World Press Freedom Day this year is “Access to information and fundamental freedoms. This is your right!”
Its concept note states: “Press freedom and access to information are essential to democracy and to sustainable development. Journalism helps make this so. Sometimes referred to as a ‘watchdog’ of political and societal institutions, journalism is also much more: It demonstrates freedom of expression for society at large, it puts new questions on the development agenda, and it empowers citizens with information. It provides a context in which the diversity of cultural expressions can flourish.
“For all these reasons, strengthening the conditions for journalism is key to developing a culture of openness, access to information and fundamental freedoms.”
On this front, too, the NLD has work to do, with the party proving thus far to be disinclined to provide information and media access. While its coy proclivities may have been justifiable during the uncertain transition period to a new government, it will increasingly hamper the media’s ability to disseminate accurate information in the years to come if the party does not adopt a more open approach to its press relations.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also weighed in on the significance of Tuesday, and not just for members of the media.
“On this World Press Freedom Day, I urge all Governments, politicians, businesses and citizens to commit to nurturing and protecting an independent, free media,” he said. “Without this fundamental right, people are less free and less empowered. With it, we can work together for a world of dignity and opportunity for all.”
It is our hope that the incumbent government will have a like-minded vision to allow independent media to thrive, in the process helping to empower every citizen in the country.
On this World Press Freedom Day, The Irrawaddy lauds great progress on matters that the commemoration concerns, but notes that true freedom of the press has yet to be achieved in Burma.