No Free Elections without Free Media

Electoral campaign speeches are being censored by the Electoral Commission. The government has not fulfilled its 2015 promises on press freedom and media development.

Myanmar election campaign1

Myanmar’s 2020 election is now only five weeks away.

Major cities such as Yangon and Sittwe are struggling with high rates of COVID-19 infections. Around 205 districts out of a total of 330 districts across the country are to date, also reporting infections.

Amid the outbreak, concern mounts over restrictions on freedom of expression - in particular political candidates’ campaign speeches being censored by the Union Election Commission (UEC).

To date, at least 4 political parties have withdrawn campaign speeches from being aired on the state own television-MRTV due to this censorship. MRTV had allocated 15-20 minutes of airtime for all 93 registered political parties.

The People’s Party (PP), the Democratic Party for New Society (DPNS), the Arakan Front Party (AFP) and the Danu National League (DNL) party leaders report being directed to remove references to “oppression”, “child poverty”, “second class citizens”, ”electricity prices” and use of the term “nationality on citizen identity cards”.

 DPNS party leader U Aung Moe Zaw rejects UEC censorship. He states:

 “I talked about (these same issues) in 2015 when U Tin Aye was the Commission chair. Now, with new facts and figures, I planned to do my presentation again. Surprisingly, I am not allowed to speak about the children of our country. It looks like a politician cannot have his or her political view. What a sad story!”.

 As a result of the UEC direction, DPNS decided not to broadcast their censured speech.

 But its not just issues perceived by the Commission to incite religious and racial unrest. Censured People’s Party leader U Ko Ko Gyi was directed to remove comments he included from a member of the public as follows: 

 “We do not have any savings; we are just living day to day for survival”.

 In addition, the phrase “The biggest challenge for local businessmen are bank interest rates which can’t compete with international investors”, and references to a “simple and fair taxation system which do not burden taxpayers” were also censored by the UEC.

 As recently as July 23, 2020, the Union Election Commission (UEC) stated that political parties would be permitted to deliver electoral speeches and explain party policies on state-owned television and radio stations during the two-month period leading up to the national election scheduled for November 8. However, all political broadcasts would be pre-approved by the election commission under overly broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say. These restrictions are in clear violation of international standards for protection of freedom of speech.

 The UEC rules prohibit any content that “can disturb the security, rule of law and the peace and stability of the county,” or “disrespects” the existing laws of the country, or “defames” or “tarnishes the image” of the country, or defames the Tatmadaw (armed forces), or can “harm dignity and morality.” The rules also prohibit any content that could “incite” members of the civil service “not to perform their duty or to oppose the government.”

 Press Freedom: Broken Promises

An independent and free media is essential to ensure democracy especially during an election. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party has been heavily criticized by their failure to prioritize media development, and a failure to uphold basic freedom of expression standards.

Myanmar’s place on the Press Freedom index has declined each year under the NLD-led government. In 2017 Myanmar was 144 out of 180 countries on the index and now sits at 139 according to a recent Reporters without Borders report. (see https://rsf.org/en/myanmar)

 Despite its 27 long pages, there is no mention of media at all in the NLDs 2020 election manifesto issued in early September 2020. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi instead appeals that people should accept that the road to democracy is unfinished in Myanmar and that because of this, they are needed at the helm to steer the process.

 But can the NLD drive democratic reform in a country without a free and vibrant media? Why has the NLD walked away from freedom of expression?

 The NLD has not fulfilled its 2015 election promises on media development. The parties’ 2015 election manifesto saw the news media as crucial and “the eyes and ears of the people”.

 The NLD stated they “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.”

 On paper, the NLD supported 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.”.

 The NLD promise on access to information has also been broken. Access to information is not only severely curtailed in conflict-ridden Rakhine and Shan States, but also widely across the 25 government ministries.

 The credibility and integrity of the 2020 election will be determined by how free and fair election reporting and coverage will be. As Bill Moyers reminds us, ‘the quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined’.

 The NLD government should pay immediate and serious attention to press freedom and allow political candidates to represent their views and broadcast their campaign speeches, for the sake of free and fair elections in Myanmar.