Print Edition - 2016-11-17  |  ASIANEWSNETWORK

Lip service to democracy

  • Threats on the media are worsening in a more-democratic Myanmar
- Eleven’s Thet

Nov 17, 2016-

Yangon—In modern Myanmar, the journey to freedom of expression has faced threats, whether it was from the quasi-civilian Thein Sein presidency or the democratically elected current civilian government.

Threats against the media range from charges of defamation, physical, travel restrictions to criminal charges. The authorities are also trying other various ways to clamp down on media independence.

The Yangon Region government sent an official letter to Eleven Media Group, Myanmar’s largest independent publisher, on November 7 referring to an article published by some members of the Asia News Network—an alliance of 21 media in 19 Asian countries of which the Eleven Group is a member.

The article was written by the CEO of Eleven Media, Dr Than Htut Aung, entitled “Myanmar: A year after the Nov 8 polls”. It was published on November 6 in the Daily Eleven newspaper and posted on Facebook.

The Yangon Region authorities zoomed in on the part of the article which says: “In social media, stories have circulated about a newly elected minister, making just $2,500 a month, being seen wearing a $100,000 Patek Philippe watch. For many Myanmar people who make $2.5 a day, this is a source of great disbelief and resentment.” 

The official letter, with the seal of the Yangon Region government, was sent by Director Moe Hein on behalf of the regional government’s chief minister and posed two main questions: “(A) Who is the rich man, who gave this gift to the elected minister, recently released from jail after serving time for his involvement in a drugs case and has received approval to build a new city from the new government? (B) Who is the businessman who wears the Patek Philippe watch admiringly?” 

In demanding to know the source of the story, Eleven saw it as an intimidation of the media and a violation of the media ethics code of conduct. Eleven Media refused to disclose the source and called for the setting up of an investigating commission by the government to probe whether the case involved corruption.

The article, in fact, did not mention the name of the chief minister or refer to the Yangon Region government. 

In a remark to the BBC, National League for Democracy Central Executive Committee member Win Htein scorned: “This is just a scandal by Eleven Media.” Win Htein hinted that a lawsuit was forthcoming.

On November 8, Eleven Media held a press conference on the case. 

The Chief Editor of Daily Eleven Newspaper, Wai Phyo, said: “We have been pointing out cronyism, corruption and mismanagement in successive governments through journalistic principles. It is general knowledge that Eleven Media Group has stood for public interest for the sake of the truth throughout our history of the past 16 years.”

In the public sphere, illegitimate private gains are seen as part of political corruption. Corruption undermines democratic principles.

On the Patek Philippe watch, it could be seen as a personal accomplishment of the person who wears it or as political spoils, as an official investigation has yet to be conducted in public interest. But the example was widely circulated and discussed intensely in the social media.

A year after the national election, which swept the NLD to victory, the public is on the edge and has more questions than the government can answer.

The cronyism and political corruption continue unabated leaving behind still those ordinary Myanmar people looking to the government to quickly better their livelihood. 

The cronyism and political corruption are like virus impairing Myanmar’s democratisation process. The role of a free press is very much giving everyone an eye and ear into issues, events, incidents—so that people can get involved to act, for government to derive solutions. It’s that simple.

But as long as the authorities are susceptible to corrupt incentives and try to evade anti-corruption procedures, it is inert, and will not take action to better themselves or the people, nor to improve checks and balances that is good for the country over the long run.

Furthermore, the media plays a crucial role in encouraging the culture of political tolerance. It is never perfect but neither is the world. And threatening freedom of expression can lead to various forms of political intolerance. 

On November 9, the Yangon Region government prosecuted the CEO and the Chief Editor of Eleven Media Group under Telecommunications Law Section 66 (d), which has been increasingly used against its online critics. The Yangon Region government targeted Eleven Media’s websites and Facebook pages for publishing the article. 

Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law states that anyone extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming or being disturbing online can be jailed for three years or be subjected to fines.

As a matter of fact, Section 66 (d) of the Telecommunications Law is a special law and it was one of the notorious legislations enacted during the Thein Sein presidency, on October 8, 2013. The NLD opposed it when it was the opposition party. 

Section 66 (d) has been subject to intense public debate. It’s an unjust 

law as among its many draconian rules— charged defendants have to be detained pending the trial. The bailing needs a further court ruling which usually takes time.

A lawyer, Moe Hein said: “The Telecommunications Law has not prescribed enough terms and conditions. It has many weaknesses even legally.”

Pite Tin, a political analyst, said: “First, a person has the right to free expression and to make criticism. Second, there might be rights and wrongs during the process of developing democracy in our country. Third, a person should not be taken in handcuffs before knowing whether he or she is right or wrong. The elected government should use Section 66 with caution.”

He added: “The media is a critical stem in promoting democracy. Section 66 (d) seems like a knife that can cut this stem. Elected government should not use such a law. It undermines the country’s standing.”

Khaing Min, a former member of the Basic Education Students Union, said: “Political prisoners should not be taken in handcuffs. They [the NLD members] did not want to be taken in handcuffs when they were political prisoners. I condemn the decision to handcuff Eleven Media’s CEO and chief editor.”

Eleven Media has faced threats of many kinds in recent time. They include lawsuits by the Information Ministry against 17 editors of the Eleven Media, including the chief editor. The CEO was subject to a vicious attack in his car and the assailant is still at large, despite the incident that occurred more than a year ago.

Published: 17-11-2016 08:16

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