De facto Myanmar ruler Aung San Suu Kai's indifference to press freedom has attracted intense criticism. Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
De facto Myanmar ruler Aung San Suu Kai's indifference to press freedom has attracted intense criticism. Photo: Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters

Media freedom is not a priority for Myanmar’s paradoxically named ruling party – the National League for Democracy (NLD).

After three journalists were arrested by the country’s military on June 26— adding to an escalating climate of fear among the press — it is surprising that the nation’s de facto ruler, and the NLD’s leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, appears to be turning her back on the very institution that supported her high-profile fight for a democratic Myanmar in the first place.

Amid widespread condemnation of her leadership since coming to office in April 2016 — including her failure to address atrocities committed by the military against the Muslim Rohingya minority — Suu Kyi now needs the media more than ever.

The seized journalists, who work for local outlets, were detained after leaving a ceremony held by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) — an armed ethnic group fighting for autonomy in Myanmar’s northeast Shan state. They were charged under the country’s colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for meeting the TNLA, which the military considers a “terrorist” group. It carries a prison sentence of up to three years.

While human rights groups, the US Embassy, the European Union, and the press all spoke out, the NLD saw justification in the arrests. But it was just the latest show of the party’s negative attitude toward freedom of expression.

The bulk charges filed under the nation’s Telecommunication Law — which prohibits the use of telecom networks to “extort, threaten, obstruct, defame, disturb, inappropriately influence, or intimidate” — have occurred under the NLD’s short rule. It has been used to dubiously sanction the dissemination of fake news and online criticism against Suu Kyi’s government and the military.

Meanwhile, reporters have been restricted from entering Rakhine state where the Rohingya face a humanitarian crisis. One reporter covering corruption in the logging industry was murdered in December, and other journalists have been threatened, while state media continue to dominate throughout the industry. Furthermore, Suu Kyi avoids interviews and has subordinated press reforms — which were launched under former president Thein Sein’s junta-backed government in 2012.

Myanmar currently ranks a lowly 131st out of 180 nations in Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. And it’s a cruel irony that the freedom of expression is being restrained under the NLD — some were once voiceless political prisoners themselves, and owe part of their liberation, and rise to power, to the media.

It was Burmese news organizations and foreign correspondents who helped cover Suu Kyi’s 15-year house arrest under a repressive military regime that elevated the international profile of Myanmar’s democratic activists

It was Burmese news organizations and foreign correspondents who helped cover Suu Kyi’s 15-year house arrest under a repressive military regime that elevated the international profile of Myanmar’s democratic activists and brought Suu Kyi’s activism against junta rule closer to the attention of the Nobel Prize committee.

Following the release of NLD prisoners, and the end of Suu Kyi’s captivity in 2010, the narrative of their struggle, commitment to the nation, and symbolism of hope was then carried by the press through to the party’s landslide election victory in November 2015.

So, what is holding Suu Kyi back on media reform? One reason may be her desire to manage relations with an independent, powerful, and politically significant army, which she considers key for Myanmar’s long-term peace and economic development prospects. Perhaps, this makes facilitating criticism and close scrutiny of military activities through an open press a controversial policy. After all, the military profit from corrupt resource extraction practices, which would come under close investigation.

Another reason could be conflict sensitivity. Suu Kyi may understand that the loosening of censorship restrictions and the emergence of social media under ex-president Thein Sein inadvertently provided a platform for nationalist voices and helped spread anti-Muslim hatred. And inflammatory social media rumors have preceded previous violent Buddhist-Muslim episodes, which she would want to avoid — particularly in Rakhine state.

In a 2014 speech in Yangon, Suu Kyi herself claimed, “Greater [press] freedom demands greater responsibility if this freedom is not to be misused.” And for a nation like Myanmar, which has a “low media and information literacy rate,” according to the UNESCO Myanmar office, and where ethnic conflict is visceral and stability is a luxury, there’s a delicate balance to be reached between freedom of speech, journalistic training, and regulation. This cannot be achieved overnight.

But none of this vindicates the heavy-handed nature of the media crackdown currently taking place in Myanmar. Suu Kyi even recently suggested that the NLD could amend the Telecommunications Law. The party would have the parliamentary majority needed to do so. But even if Suu Kyi is fearful over risks that media freedom may create, they can be mitigated, and above all, she should realize that actively nurturing the press would be in her and the nation’s best interests.

Firstly, holding more frequent media interviews can play a key role in helping to clarify her policy objectives, explain her decisions, and manage expectations at a time when public — and international — pressure is mounting on her. Next, helping to develop an open and independent press environment can help attract transparency-minded businesses and investors to the nation, which is vital for the NLD’s economic growth plans.

The press can also play a pivotal role in engaging the nation’s restive ethnic minority groups into Suu Kyi’s wider peace and development agenda. Though this remains difficult as long as the Unlawful Associations Act — which restricts interaction with ethnic groups — remains in play. At the same time, the NLD can draw support from NGOs to help train journalists — while also investing in information literacy.

To manage potential risks, developing the Myanmar Press Council’s capacity to function as an independent media standards body can help to boost journalistic standards and establish clearer, and fairer, rules and disincentives for fake news and libel. While granting reporting access on military matters, and in ethnic regions, temporarily for only the most experienced journalists might be one means to mitigate against weak journalism on important matters — until media skill sets mature. Either way, clearer wording is required in the Telecommunications Law.

And with Suu Kyi’s limited direct control over the military’s oppression in Rakhine, its skirmishes against ethnic groups, and its attacks on journalists, a vibrant media environment, characterized by less fear and mistrust of the state, can play an important role in pressuring the military. In effect, it can help raise support for constitutional change to dilute the army’s political power and autonomy — which is currently the biggest check on the NLD’s agenda.

Ultimately, Suu Kyi can do a lot for Myanmar, and herself, by showing greater empathy and support for the media. With national and international confidence in her peace plans, economic agenda, and leadership waning — alongside a marauding military — she will need to reach out for the helping hand of the media once again.

Tej Parikh

Tej Parikh is a global public policy analyst and journalist. He was previously an associate editor and reporter for The Cambodia Daily in Phnom Penh. He tweets @tejparikh90.