Myanmar and World Press Freedom Day

2 May, 2016 / By

On the face of it, Myanmar appears to have turned the page on locking up journalists. One of the first acts of the new Aung San Suu Kyi-Htin Kyaw government was to free several journalists who had been locked up during the tenure of President Thein Sein’s government.

But that said, let’s not be too quick to judge as the laws that led to the incarcerations are still on the books.

On May 3, Myanmar will take a moment to celebrate the UNESCO-inspired World Press Freedom Day, which celebrates the fundamental principles of press freedom; to evaluate press freedom around the world, to defend the media from attacks on their independence, and to pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the exercise of their profession.

This year, the overarching theme of the celebration is Access to Information and Fundamental Freedoms with a focus on: Freedom of Information and Sustainable Development, protecting press freedom from censorship and surveillance overreach and ensuring safety of journalists online and offline. Over 100 national celebrations around the world take place this year to commemorate this day. UNESCO leads the worldwide celebration by identifying the global thematic and organizing the main event in different parts of world every year.

The international day was proclaimed by the UN General Assembly in 1993 following a Recommendation adopted at the 26th Session of UNESCO’s General Conference in 1991. This in turn was a response to a call by African journalists who in 1991 produced the landmark Windhoek Declaration on media pluralism and independence. This year the event will take place in Helsinki, Finland from May 2-4, with journalists gathering to discuss progress and setbacks in today’s troubled and at times deadly media world.

Despite a sense of euphoria over the recent release of jailed reporters in Myanmar, journalists and media organizations here need to remain on their toes and protective of their freedom to be allowed to report fairly in a changing country. Admittedly, it will be harder for the authorities to jail journalists under the new, “more democratic” regime, a government that should be promoting “freedom from fear.” But old laws still remain on the books, and it is crucial that pressure be exercised to call for a fairer media playing field. In addition, circumstances on the ground for journalists working in the more remote areas of the country, particularly those where fighting continues to flare up, and communal tensions remain high, continue to be problematic.

It is hard to get away from the fact that the local media in Myanmar continues to self censor and is by and large frightened of covering more sensitive topics, not least the workings of the Military. Part of the problem lies in laws that enable individuals or companies to take umbrage too easily and file suit, rather than having a working mechanism to deal with disgruntled people who think they or their company have been libeled. To be fair, on some occasions the media play fast-and-loose with facts, shooting first and asking questions later, not unlike the sad state of play among the tabloid press in the UK or US. So there is little doubt that the local media needs to improve its training and practices, and promote a workable code of ethics.

Going forward, Myanmar’s media needs to strive for good quality reporting and writing, working in an atmosphere of fairness and balance to effectively document their country going through a dramatic transition. Only by upholding high standards can the media justly call for fairness and freedom to report.

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