By Zin Linn
Nowadays, many observers and analysts on press freedom of Burma think the Southeast Asian country is really on a path of reform. However, some do not agree on this.
During the BBC’s Burmese Service transmission from its new London Broadcasting House, Burma’s pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi said: “It’s very important that the external media keeps up an awareness of what is happening in Burma because we don’t really have absolute freedom of information. We don’t have absolute freedom of the press.”
“We must remember there is such a thing as censorship in the country,” Burma’s Nobel laureate added.
From the outside, it looks as if change began when the government began to allow some political space for key opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In fact, reforms in the country including press freedom are uncertain, despite promising actions by President Thein Sein recently.
On January 20, when Lally Weymouth from The Washington Post asked about press freedom, Suu Kyi said, “There is no real freedom of the press yet. When I was released last year, I think we didn’t have half the number of journalists and publications that we have now. Within the last year, the numbers of publications have proliferated.”
As reported by Mizzima News, the Modern Journal’s managing editor Wai Hlyan and correspondent Thet Su Aung were granted bail on March 6 in the first hearing of a libel lawsuit filed by Nwe Nwe Yi, a government construction engineer, referring their lawyer. Both journalists were granted bail in a lawsuit filed at the court of Thabeikkyin Township, Mandalay division, said lawyer Myint Thwin. The next hearing will be on March 23 set by the Thabeikkyin Township court.
After interviewing some vehicle-drivers, the Modern Journal’s reporter reported the dire condition of roads and bridges in Thabeikkyin Township and resulting road accidents. Besides, the news article also spotlighted the toll fee as unusual.
The government should not encourage their officials to take legal action against journalists without just cause. It may make journalists hesitant to cover the news that people need to know. Articles similar to the one in the Modern Journal are not personal provocation but help the respective authorities to amend inappropriate conduct.
Moreover, the state-run Kyemon daily reported on March 13 that the Ministry of Mines plans legal action against a reporter and the publisher of private weekly The Voice for a report alleging misappropriation of funds.
The Voice, in its March 12 periodical, quoting anonymous members of Parliament, published a finding submitted by the auditor general’s office to the Public Accounts Committee saying misappropriation and irregularities in the accounts of the Information, Mines, Agriculture, Industry One and Industry Two ministries for the 2009-2011 financial years, before the current government replaced the junta.
Referring Myanmar News Agency (MNA), state-owned Kyemon Daily said that the account in The Voice was incorrect, spoils the decorum of the Ministry of Mines and could negatively affect public confidence.
On March 15, Reporters Without Borders and its partner organization, the Burma Media Association (BMA), condemned the criminal libel suit that a construction ministry engineer has brought against the Modern Weekly newspaper and one of its reporters, Thet Su Aung, over a report last November criticizing the state of roads in the central region of Mandalay.
The press freedom organization urges the mining ministry not to bring a libel suit against the weekly as it would send a negative signal to the media and they have a legitimate right to take an interest in the functioning of government institutions.
The mining ministry has a right of response and has publicly denied the accusations. But a libel suit would intimidate Burmese journalists and would force self-censorship. The ministry’s announcement has served to re-emphasize the need for the creation of an independent press council that can mediate between the media and plaintiffs.
“The libel action against Thet Su Aung is marring the reform process that the government has initiated with respect to the media and we call for its withdrawal,” Reporters Without Borders said.
The country needs an independent press council to settle between plaintiffs and the media to avoid passing on cases to the courts. The media watchdog organization also underscores that it is necessary to establish a really independent journalists’ union provided with legal protection and assistance for journalists.
Meanwhile, on Monday and Tuesday (19 & 20 March), Burma’s Ministry of Information and UNESCO in cooperation with International Media Support (IMS) and Canal France International have jointly sponsored a media forum to talk about media development of Burma in Rangoon. Participants from domestic and international media organizations plus Burmese government officials will take part in the two-day conference.
Analysts hope the media conference to be a constructive forum so as to help establishing a better surrounding of free press in the country.