After election, press council members target law reform

Incoming members of the Myanmar Press Council want to introduce legal changes so it can do more to protect journalists and media freedom.

By YE MON | FRONTIER

INCOMING MEMBERS of the Myanmar Press Council plan to push for amendments to the News Media Law amid criticism of the outgoing council for not doing enough to protect journalists and media freedom.

A vote on August 18 saw 19 members voted onto the incoming Myanmar Press Council, to which another 10 members are nominated, including representatives of professional bodies.

However, the results could take several weeks to confirm as a number of complaint letters had been received by the August 24 deadline, said council secretary U Thiha Saw, who led the team that organised the vote. Once the complaints have been resolved, the results will be confirmed and a new chair and secretary selected.

Among younger generation journalists elected to the council was U Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of The Voice, who was secretary of the Press Council (Interim) formed in 2012, but did not contest elections for the current council that were held in October 2015.

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He said amendments to the 2014 News Media Law needed to guarantee journalists’ right to access information, citing the ban on them entering the chambers of the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, Myanmar’s national parliament.

“We will try to amend the law so that legal action can be taken against the authorities if they decline to provide information,” he said. “The spokespersons of government offices should reply to journalists’ requests in time.”

Daw Thu Zar from 7Day TV, who has been nominated to represent the Myanmar Women Journalist Society, said one of the weaknesses of the outgoing council was its failure to achieve amendments to the News Media Law.

The law provides for journalists who are convicted of violating a code of conduct to be liable to a maximum fine of K1 million.

However, in nearly all cases the government has instead chosen to open cases against journalists under other laws with stronger punishments.

“We need law enforcement and we need to amend the law. The outgoing council drafted an amendment and we will continue working on it for the sake of media freedom,” Thu Zar said.

She said the first priority of the incoming council would be to campaign for the release of Reuters reporters Ko Wa Lone and Ko Kyaw Soe Oo, who have been sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for breaching the Official Secrets Act following their arrest under controversial circumstances last December.

“We will try to get a chance to discuss the Reuters case with the government,” Thu Zar said.

There were accusations that the outgoing council did not do enough to protect journalists who had been sued or arrested by the government or the Tatmadaw, other than issue statements.

Ko Phyo Htet Aung, a video journalist for Myanmar National Television, was sharply critical of the outgoing council for releasing “lots of statements” when journalists were arrested or attacked.

“We don’t want the new council to be like that,” Phyo Htet Aung said.

The News Media By-Law required the council to form a mediation committee to handle complaints about journalists. However, the council could not handle complaints from the government and the Tatmadaw, he added.

Civil society group Free Expression Myanmar has campaigned strongly to amend the News Media Law, saying the council needs to be independent of the government.

“The News Media Law was useful for journalists during the early political transition but is not suitable for a democracy and needs urgent amendment to support media freedom and make the Myanmar Press Council independent from government,” FEM said in a January 2017 report.

But outgoing secretary Thiha Saw, a veteran journalist, defended it against accusations it did not do enough for journalists who were the target of complaints.

The council was unable to play a mediation role in cases where legal action had already been taken against a journalist, Thiha Saw said.

“Some cases go directly to court, so we can’t negotiate with the complainants,” he said.

“In the Reuters case, the prosecutor did not complain to us, that’s why we can’t do anything for that case,” he said, referring to journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo.

“The new council needs to fix the Media Law so a situation like this can’t happen again.”

Thiha Saw said the council had, however, been able to intervene in the case of the three journalists detained by the Tatmadaw in Shan State in June last year on charges of unlawful association.

He said the council had written to Tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing to request the release of the journalists, who were freed on September 1 last year after charges against them were dropped by the military.

As well as the six representatives chosen by professional bodies – Myanmar Journalists Association, Myanmar Journalist Network, Myanmar Journalists Union, Burma News International, Myanmar Broadcasters Association and MWJS – the council’s 10 non-elected members include one member each nominated by the outgoing council, the president and the speakers of the lower and upper houses of parliament.

President U Win Myint has nominated author Htet Myat (U Kyaw Naing); former editor-in-chief of Pyithu Ayay weekly journal, U Maw Lin, who is said to be close to Minister for Information Dr Pe Myint, has been nominated by upper house speaker U Mahn Win Khaing Than; and Pyithu Hluttaw MP U Myint Lwin (National League for Democracy, Twante) has been nominated by lower house speaker U T Khun Myat.

The council nominated U Ohn Kyaing, the current vice chair, who recently drew criticism when he was quoted as saying during a meeting with Min Aung Hlaing that “the Tatmadaw and the media are of the same mind and aim”.

Phyo Htet Aung said the current press council was too close to the information minister and his deputy, and the new members needed to show they were independent.

“I think the new council will be a little bit of an improvement on the current one,” he said.

Thu Zar said the new council needed to rebuild its image and regain the trust of journalists.

“We will work to achieve our goals: amending the law, tackling the Reuters case and ensuring freedom of the press,” she said.

TOP PHOTO: Votes are tallied during the Myanmar Press Council election on August 18. (Nyein Su Wai Kyaw Soe | Frontier)

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