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In Suu Kyi election victory, Burmese journalists see chance for change

Local media adopting "wait and see" attitude ahead of historic power shift

A news vendor displays local newspapers on a street in Yangon, 9 November 2015
A news vendor displays local newspapers on a street in Yangon, 9 November 2015

REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

This statement was originally published on on 27 November 2015.

By Cagla Zimmerman, IPI Contributor

The date November 8, 2015 may go down as a historic turning point for democracy in Myanmar. On that day, formerly jailed opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party won 390 seats in the country's combined Parliament, enough for an absolute majority despite the fact that 25 percent of seats are reserved for military officials.

The landslide victory, combined with assurances by military leaders that Suu Kyi's party will be allowed to take power, further raises hope for the future of democratic governance and human rights, including media freedom, in the country. It also presents an opportunity to evaluate the Burmese media's ability to report freely and independently on issues of public interest.

Fears regarding the ability of NLD assume its mandate date back to 1990, when the party won a similarly overwhelming victory that was not recognised by the ruling military junta. Current President Thein Sein has promised that this time will be different, telling local media: "All duties would be transferred to the next government systematically according to the schedule. We will make sure it will be smooth and stable without having to worry about anything."

The NLD remains cautions. "This time, although we are quite glad that we won, we worry that history may repeat itself,” NLD spokesman Win Htein has been quoted as saying. “We don't think the transition will be 100 per cent perfect.”

Should President Thein Sein keep his word, Myanmar's new parliament is expected to take office in March 2016. Although Aung San Suu Kyi's election win suggests that Myanmar's citizens would like to see her as the country's next president, the military-era constitution bars her from taking the position because her children and late husband are foreign nationals. Suu Kyi has nevertheless suggested that she will run the country from behind the scenes, with the president only acting “in accordance with the positions of the party”.

The November 2015 elections: free and fair?

Though there is no doubt that Myanmar has taken important steps toward democratisation in recent years, this month's elections were seen as a stern test of the country's commitment to change. In general, observers both in Myanmar and abroad seemed to agree that the vote was largely free if not fully fair, as Aung San Suu Kyi herself put it in an interview with the BBC.

A pre-election survey commissioned by Myanmar's Mizzima Media Group in October 2015 found that 66 percent of Burmese voters believed that the 2015 vote would be free and fair. By contrast, just 34 percent thought the same of the 2010 general elections, which the NLD boycotted. 77 percent approved of the work of the Union Election Commission (UEC) in ensuring high polling standards. Despite the overall optimism, the survey did reveal specific concerns: 65 percent of respondents indicated that they had misgivings about voter lists, for example.

Following the vote, the European Union's Election Observation Mission (EOM) in Myanmar concluded that the poll had been well organised, ballot secrecy had been respected and that and “voters had a real choice between different candidates”. Likewise, the U.S.-based Carter Center, which sent observers to 245 polling stations, praised the ballot casting and counting processes and said the elections were “competitive and meaningful” in most parts of the country.

However, the EOM and the Carter Center, among other observers, highlighted the need for improvements in certain areas. These include the disenfranchisement of ethnic minorities such as the Rohingya, lack of transparency related to out-of-constituency advanced voting and the constitutional allocation of 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military. The Carter Center urged authorities to increase efforts to allay public concern about voter lists in the future.

In a strong indication of global support, U.S. President Barack Obama reportedly called President Thein Sein to congratulate him on the vote's success. Later, in a conversation with Aung San Suu Kyi, according to a White House statement, Obama characterised the election and the formation of a new government as “an important step forward in Burma's democratic transition”.

The media atmosphere in Myanmar before and after the vote

The Myanmar Election Media Analysis 2015 (MEMA), conducted by Mizzima together with META Communication, an Austria-based media monitoring company, found that media coverage in October 2015 focused heavily on the NLD. According to an MEMA survey of 15 Burmese and English-language media houses from 1–31 October, 635 articles focused on the NLD, the most of any party of institution; the country's national election commission followed with 428 articles and the Union Solidarity and Development Party of President Thein Sein came in third with 294. The analysis noted that the election remained the “dominant issue” in the media, with a slight but measurable increase in coverage of the topic of democratic reforms.

Disparities between state and private media appear to have persisted. Maw Zin, director of the Myanmar Institute for Democracy, told Channel News Asia that while state media emphasised the activities of President Thein Sein, cabinet members and military officials, private media focused on the opposition. One official from the President's USDP quoted in the same article complained that private outlets were not interested in contacting his party. Soe Myint, Mizzima editor-in-chief, said that obtaining or confirming information with government and military institutions was the biggest challenge for his work.

What is clear is that the military leadership's decision in 2011 to place the country on a path toward openness has improved the flow of news and information in Myanmar. This change becomes obvious when one considers that, only a few ago, newspapers faced penalties for reporting on or publishing pictures of Suu Kyi.

The question now on everyone's mind is whether the NLD's victory will pave the way for a truly free and independent media environment in Myanmar and what it will mean for the country's journalists and media workers.

“We expect [that] the winning party will open up freer media in this country,” Mon Mon Myat, a journalist and coordinator at Myanmar's Creative Media House, told IPI. “Even if the new government [does] not guarantee media freedom, we will definitely fight for it again.”

She added: “Media in Myanmar now are taking a wait-and-see approach with consciousness to the recent government. We are in ready position to push toward real change. Our watchdog role is even more important than before. Key government officials openly said that media are not on their side. It is true that media are taking the side of people because we have the same wish as majority of people in this country to have 'real change'.”

Feliz Solomon, a writer and editor at The Irrawaddy newspaper, told IPI that she, too, is hoping the new NLD government will prevent the jailing and killing of journalists, and that things will improve for Myanmar's journalists under a more civilian government. She added that challenges would continue until Myanmar's media industry became more professionalised and until the government and other public figures became more comfortable with press scrutiny.

She noted further: “Local journalists, particularly beyond the urban areas, are still at risk of intimidation, harassment and limitations on the access they need to do their jobs. There also remain many conflict zones where reporters do not have adequate protections. Foreign correspondents enjoy much more freedom in Burma than local journalists, which often leads people to the conclusion that the media in Burma is much more 'free' than it was a few years ago.”

Just weeks after the election, there is simply not yet enough evidence to determine whether the NLD's victory will bring the kind of lasting improvements to media freedom that Myanmar needs.

As Myanmar's constitution still grants wide-ranging powers to the military, including authority over key government ministries such as defence and home affairs, it is likely that the Burmese press will continue to face difficulties covering critical issues of public interest.

Nevertheless, the overwhelming nature of the NLD's win is a sign of public support for democracy, which in turn cannot take root without an increase in media freedom. Aung San Suu Kyi is undoubtedly aware of this link. The hope that a better environment for journalism will ensue under the NLD is therefore justified yet should be the subject of continued careful monitoring.

What other IFEX members are saying
  • Impressions on media coverage of Burma's election

    SEAPA's four 2015 Fellows witnessed this momentous juncture in Burma's political transition, writing their stories on how the country's media is covering the election.

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