Media and elections in Myanmar

Myanmar is at a crossroads with the much anticipated elections taking place on 8 November. For the first time, both members of the media community in Myanmar and political parties can participate in the election process without overriding censorship and in which all major parties, including the National League for Democracy (NLD) will contest.

But while significant progress has been made across the board, there are fears concerning the direction of the democratic reform process after the elections. International Media Support (IMS) and Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy (DIPD) debated the issue in Copnhagen on 3 November at a public event titled “Myanmar’s difficult path to democracy”.

“It is the first time the media in Myanmar can cover elections freely,” said Kyaw Min Swe, Secretary of the Myanmar Press Council (interim), who travelled to Copenhagen to provide an eye witness perspective on how the election process has fared and how media and political parties have tackled their first free elections. In the dual role  as a member of Myanmar’s first Press Council as well as the editor in chief of the newspaper The Voice Daily, Kyaw Min Swe could describe the conditions under which the media was able to work in the lead-up to elections.

“We are all victims of our history of living under a military regime. As a journalist it is difficult even now to be impartial because we are all emotionally involved at some level. For this reason it is important to continue professionalising the media sector, and all other sectors for that matter,” he explained.

“Many of the private media outlets are to some extent biased in their reporting, supporting either the opposition or the ruling party. There is a need to enhance the standard of press ethics and professionalisation in the country,” he added.

Especially the media sector has seen progress over the last four years since the democratic reform took speed in 20011. Pre-publication censorship was abolished in 2012; an interim Press Council was established which introduced a nationwide Code of Conduct for journalists in 2014  and three new journalist associations advocating the rights of journalists were established. In May 2014, the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill were passed by Parliament.

However, a spate of arrests of journalists by authorities and the military in the last year and a half continues to raise concerns that the government is back-stepping on reforms and employing lingering laws from the regime era to punish journalists for acts of defamation have led many to question whether democratic development is indeed stalling.

A burning issue faced not only by local media stakeholders such as the Myanmar Press Council, but also by international development organisations like IMS and DIPD, has been the question of whether or not one should engage with the government. The issue was discussed heatedly by the speakers on the panel.

“It is very difficult to see how changes can happen in the media sector in Myanmar without working with the Ministry of Information,” Kyaw Min Swe pointed out.

“I’m part of the Myanmar Press Council that drafted new media laws in collaboration with IMS, which we then submitted to the Ministry of Information. We have to work with the government whether we like it or not, as they are the ones with the legal power to make the changes,” he continued.

This was also elaborated on by Esben Harboe, IMS Programme Manager for Myanmar and China.

“In a transitional country like Myanmar, it is our belief that you need to promote those drivers of change that can actually transform legislation and that still have some say and control,” he says.

“However, even though censorship has officially been abolished, there are still people monitoring the media and  there are still laws in Myanmar that are being used to threaten people, specifically the Official Secret Act from 1923. In 2014, five journalists from the country’s newspaper “Unity” were sentenced to ten years in prison for reporting on military matters. This is exactly why we should stay engaged with the law and policy area. There are still laws that are being misused and unless this is addressed, we will not have freedom of the press,” said Esben Harboe.

Elections in a semi-democracy

The emergence of more than 90 political parties in the country provides the citizens with ample choice at the ballot box, but at the same time it also poses challenges, as many parties are small and with little capacity, let alone funds to engage in election campaigns.

The majority of parties are regionally based or ethnically affiliated and few have the national reach that the major parties have. The political parties are not used to interacting with the media or aware of how to use the media in their communication with voters. To address this,  DIPD has worked with political parties to strengthen their election-related skills and role in cooperating with the media in the lead-up to the elections.

“We are working to guide political parties on how to build the capacity of their parties, and we have been focusing especially on youths,” Hanne Lund Madsen, senior adviser on DIPD’s Myanmar programme, explained.

The regulations issued by the Union Election Commission are also often not well understood or very demanding for the parties to comply with, for instance in the areas of candidate approval.

“It is also a problem that people do not trust the Union Election Commission,” said Kyaw Min Swe.

Lars Barfoed, former minister and MP, pointed out the importance of discussing what will happen after the elections which he sees as the more critical phase.

“After the elections, the new Myanmar government will need to form coalitions, but there is a lot of mistrust and lack of confidence among these parties. A new level of trust needs to be built,” he argued.

Ulrich Sørensen, former Chargé d’Affaires for Denmark in Myanmar who spent five years in the country from 2010 – 2015, added that while there are still a lot of challenges in Myanmar, the country has to be seen from the perspective of its starting point only five years ago.

“In 2010, Myanmar was a completely different country that was inaccessible for international organisations and there was no press freedom. Today it is a semi-democracy with a Parliament and a certain degree of press freedom,” he says.

He further stresses that the role of the international community is to support the reform process and to make sure that there is genuine peace in the country.

“You have to identify the drivers of change and work with them,” he says.

Read more about IMS work in Myanmar.

Read more about DIPD here.