Myanmar needs a First Amendment

It is difficult for journalists in Myanmar to imagine the freedom of expression that our American counterparts enjoy under the US Constitution.


LAST MONTH, I was among a group of nine Myanmar journalists and activists who travelled to the United States to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program hosted by the US State Department.

I was aware that there is a relatively free press in the US, but I did not fully understand why until the trip.

We visited The Post-Standard newspaper and the WSYR-TV television station in Syracuse, New York and the Newseum, an interactive museum dedicated to free expression in Washington, D.C.

I learned that press freedom in the US is enshrined in the First Amendment to the US Constitution adopted on December 15, 1791.

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It states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Many media establishments in the US, including respected newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, have been the subject of tart criticism from President Donald Trump since he took office at the start of 2017. He has gone as far as labelling American media whose reporting he does not like as the “enemy of the state”.

Trump’s tirades against sections of the press have been relentless but have not affected the coverage of his administration by publications and broadcasters that practice ethical journalism.

I came to understand during the trip that journalists in the US are able to report without fear or favour because the First Amendment protects them.

A few days after the group returned to Myanmar, there was a confrontation at a White House news conference between Trump and a senior CNN reporter, Mr Jim Acosta.

Trump was in a bad mood at the November 8 news conference because the Republican Party had lost its majority in the House of Representatives in the US mid-term elections two days earlier. Trump reacted angrily when Acosta challenged his narrative about a caravan of Central American migrants in Mexico heading for the US border, an issue the president had used to rally anti-immigrant sentiment during the election campaign.

“You are a rude, terrible person. You shouldn’t be working for CNN,” Trump told Acosta, whose media pass granting access to the White House was revoked later the same day.

On November 13, CNN reacted. It filed a lawsuit against Trump and five White House aides, accusing them of violating Acosta’s First Amendment rights by withdrawing his pass. The lawsuit also alleges that Acosta’s rights were violated under the Fifth Amendment, which prohibits government officials from abusing their authority during legal proceedings.

It is astonishing to me as a Myanmar journalist that under the First Amendment a decision taken by the US president, one of the world’s most powerful people, can be challenged in a court of law.

It is difficult for journalists in Myanmar to imagine the freedom of expression that our American counterparts enjoy under the First Amendment; we always have to be extra careful when we write about the government even though our right to freedom of expression is stated in the 2014 News Media Law.

The law was partly created to protect journalists in a country with no constitutional guarantee for media freedom and no government will to amend the many laws criminalising journalism. However, journalists continue to face legal action and even prison terms for doing their jobs.

There is disappointment in the media that the right to freedom of expression has not been better protected under the National League for Democracy government, despite its apparent commitment to democratic values.

Journalism is in a precarious state in Myanmar. Our right to freedom of expression is not protected, despite the objectives of the News Media Law.

It is my dream that one day there will be a law that effectively protects our right to freedom of expression – just like the First Amendment.

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