Open letter to Speaker U Mann Win Khaing Than

Writer: 
Nay Htun Naing

Dear Union Parliament Speaker U Mann Win Khaing Than,

I have read the statement issued by the parliamentary office dated February 5. I am not sure whether or not you are aware of the statement, but it was signed off by U Kyaw Soe, the secretary of the Central Committee for Holding Parliamentary Sessions and director general of the parliamentray office.

The statement is titled “For the Coordination with the Media” and expressed the don’ts for the media professionals in the Parliament.

In other words, the statement is about the restrictions on the people who are working for the public’s right to know. I want to say about these matters for the Speaker to know. I also want the Lower House Speaker U Win Myint to know because you two are the chairs of the Parliament.

As I understand nothing can go beyond the authority of the Speakers, I will say directly to you.

(1) It is required to seek for a better relationship between the media and the Parliament after what happened during the previous Parliament. Therefore, the media coverage of the Parliament should not be limited. What should be done is reduce the old restrictions imposed by the previous Parliament. However the current statement will only make the problem worse for three reasons: Firstly, the statement contains an irrelevant provision; secondly, the limitations of place and number of journalists; and the third is to set up a media centre in the Parliament. I will talk about the first matter.

The third paragraph of the statement contains 18 conditions forbidden to the reporters and the last one is the strictest as follows: “The media are to write news about parliamentary dicussions ethically in a way not to damage the dignity of the State and the Parliament.”

I do not know for what reason this provision is included.

The provision violates the Section 354(a) of the Constitution: the right to express and freely publish their convictions and opinions.

Moreover it also contradicts the Media Law enacted on March 14, 2014. Chapter 3 of the Media Law mentions the rights of the media. Section 4(a) is about the right “to freely criticize, point out or recommend operating procedures of the legislative, the executive and judiciary in conformity with the constitution”. Similarly Section 4(b) also gives the media the right “to investigate, publish and broadcast information and related opinions to which every citizen is entitled in accordance with rules and regulations”. Therefore no one can restrict the reporters who are working ethically. And, what does it mean by “...to write news about parliamentary dicussions ethically in a way not to damage the dignity of the State and the Parliament”? It seems like threatening the reporters who are working ethically. (2) The reporters will write news about the lawmakers’ discussions as he saw, including the other things he witnessed. The interest and impact are the result of the things and discussions he observed. The activity cannot be restricted directly or indirectly. Every reporter of ethics holds liability for their works. Since they are working officially under their true identities, the mistakes are out of the question. There are media laws to take action against the morally wrong reporters. Therefore the word “ethically” is not needed to mention. This is like repeating the old tune which was played by the dictators: trying to have a control through ethical warning. Everyone – such as journalists, medical practitioners, etc – has their own set of ethics. This is not worth mentioning in details. The previous governments used to control the reporters with the use of ethical boundaries. There have been outcries against such red tapes. I do not want the government and the Parliament led by the National League for Democracy (NLD) to follow this path. It is open to question why the NLD-led Parliament used the word which was repeatedly used by the dictators. The only persons that need to behave not to damage the dignity of the State and the Parliament concerned with the parliamentary discussions are the parliamentarians and officials inside the Parliament themselves. If they behave, the dignity of the State and the Parliament will not be damaged. It is inappropriate to put the blame on the reporters. There was an instance in 2015. During the voting session, a military MP pressed the voting button on behalf of an absent military MP. A reporter saw it, and wrote a news “The MPs with Many Hands and Suspicious Vote Results” with the photo evidence. The result is the reporters being blamed, and banned from covering the parliamentary sessions from the media chamber in the Parliament. It is obvious who was wrong. But the one who committed the misconduct was not given any punishment but the reporters who reported the action were forbidden from covering the parliamentary sessions from the media chamber. The media still cannot cover the parliamentary sessions from the media chamber in the new Parliament. The February-5 statement imposed more restraints on the media’s rights to cover news. This is just as same as what the dictators did. It is not in line with the democratic norms, and is questionable from the point of international standards. (3) Another debatable provision in the statement is limiting the number of journalists. A media agency may send no more than five reporters to cover the parliamentary sessions. The reporters must be approved by the Information Ministry, the Myanmar Press Council, and the Foreign Correspondents Club. They also need permits from the parliament offices. Formerly, the reporters submit the list to the Information Ministry who then relays it to the parliament office where the reporters will be checked and approved. In fact, the parliament office should handle this process without any proxy. It is convenient if the reporters apply for the permission directly to the parliament office. Having proxies in the process only causes confusions. Moreover, the proxy institutions are seemingly employed to control the reporters. The dictators used to do such thing. The limitation seems to apply in all the parliamentary sessions. No one can know more than the reporters if the parliamentary sessions can be covered by just five people completely. There are seven reporters from Eleven Media Group covering the parliamentary sessions – two for Lower House sessions, one for Upper House sessions for the newspaper; a reporter and a cameraman for each House for Eleven Web TV. Five persons are enough for the publication of a newspaper or journal but not enough if broadcasting is included. Moreover, there is no official announcement as to whether those five people can be changed or not. What is announced is that any need to include more than five people will be separately assessed. And this is questionable if it is based on equality or being hand-picked. It is because there have been many instances in which journalists from state-run newspapers, TVs, MRTV, and Sky Net have enjoyed more opportunities than those from other media under the previous government. The limited number might be related to more than 500 reporters who came to cover news when the second new parliament opened. There should not be such limitation based on this reason. The number of reporters might have been large because of the start of a new parliament. Such a large number will not remain forever. Normally, there are only 50 to 100 reporters covering parliamentary news. Sometimes, the number is just about 20 to 30. It is also necessary to exactly mention restricted areas and buildings where no camera and video is allowed without permission. What is strange is that separate security guards shall be at Hall I for the parliamentary affairs committee. But the reason might be that Thura U Shwe Mann's office is at I-1 and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi's office is at I-12. (4) We need to point out the matter of media corner as mentioned in point 13. Previously, there was a media room to directly cover parliamentary news. In 2015 live news coverage was banned. When the new parliament started to convene, reporters still do not regain access to the media room. Instead, a media corner has emerged, which is not convenient for reporters. Actually, a media centre is necessary for about 50 or 100 reporters. A media centre of international standard is required. As stated in point 13, "As broadcasting and news writing has been allowed at the media corner, reporters can cover news and take a rest at the same venue. And this does not meet qualification of a media centre. This is why inconvenient scenes have emerged where reporters are writing their news along the corridor and where crowds of reporters have to cover news from the screen of a single small television. Such scenes did exist at the previous parliamentary sessions. If they continue to exist at the new sessions, the image of parliament will decline. What's more, it would be a worsening situation if the attitude of the USDP-dominant parliament is the same as that of the NLD-dominant parliament. To set up a media center, it is necessary to take an example of international meetings and conferences. We could learn how to establish media centers at the Asean Summit Myanmar hosted in 2014 and at SEA Games. Just giving a table and seats cannot be called a media centre. It is necessary to arrange an office for media officers, computers, high-speed Internet, photocopiers, printers and other equipment for smooth flow of news. Small studios are also required for broadcasters while media staffers are necessary for press conferences, press release and interviews. They need to stay close to reporters. I am talking about these by giving examples of the international community. In such a splendid Myanmar Parliament, a media centre of set standard should exist. I will talk about three major points regarding the statement released on February 5. First, restriction in No 18 should be excluded. While parliament is working, reporters will also be doing their job. What they need to do is to follow the rules and regulations. Second, the restricted number of reporters should be reconsidered. A limited number will not work if we want to release complete coverage of parliamentary news. Third, a fairly good media centre must be set up even if live coverage is not allowed. A media centre is required for the parliament which will hold frequent meetings during its five-year tenure. (5) Another important is to avoid proxy for media-related work. Proxy is not representative of all. In the times of the previous successive governments, proxies were used to suppress the media. According to the statement, the parliament tends to say that such restrictions on the media were imposed after seeking consultation with other organisations. Such a move is similar to that in the times of authoritarian governments, which used proxy organisations Paragraph 2 of the statement says the director general and responsible officials from the respective parliaments, Director U Thet Swe and officials from the Information Ministry, Press Council Secretary-2 U Kyaw Swar Min, U Ye Min Oo from Myanmar Journalists Association and security officers held a meeting to discuss systematic news coverage within the compound of parliament. The points included in paragraph 3 emerged from the discussion they had made. Action must be done under those terms and conditions prescribed. On February 5 also, the Press Council sent a letter to U Kyaw Soe, director general of the Union Parliament Office regarding the statement. But it was not clear if the letter disagreed with or opposed the statement released by the parliament. According to paragraph 3 of the letter, the Press Council says it understands that the journalists must follow the rules and procedures adopted by the respective parliament offices in the areas of news covering, limited number of reporters and limited space. The council itself has not intervened with and will not intervene with those rules and procedures. Reviewing the letter of the council, the Parliament Office needs to clarify if it has called a mock meeting to reveal the restrictions or if it has really held the meeting in agreement with other organisations. Such a move by using proxy as a tool was repeatedly made under the authoritarian rule. We don't want to see a similar way anymore. Union Parliament speaker U Mann Win Khaing Than… The February 5 statement released by the Union Parliament Office has shown signs of bureaucracy and dictatorship. It is designed to impose further restrictions on journalists' right to know although they are covering news in accord with the news media law enacted to ensure the public right to know. Moreover, reporters' right to know and press freedom is being suppressed. Both the Union Parliament speaker and Lower House speaker U Win Myint might not have known about this. But I am talking about this because you are responsible, no matter whoever has adopted those rules and regulations. I still remember a remark the Lower House speaker made during his opening speech at the commencement of the second parliament. He pointed out parliament's main duty is legislation and stressed the need for a lawmaker not to break the law. The parliament should therefore review the rules it has imposed as to whether they are above the law or not. It is certain that they are beyond the constitution as well as the news media law. If the statement goes on like this, lawmakers' attitude towards the law will be called into question. I won't say rules and regulations are unnecessary. They are necessary. But they should be imposed based on principle, not on overwhelming desire; in conformity with law; and in line with international standards. When dealing with the media, proxies must not be used. Some journalists want to act as proxies or lackeys to enjoy privileges. Don't listen to them. Just listen to the common desire of all. Parliament speakers should know that some crony businessmen are attempting to harm the media by making best use of NLD. The previous authoritarian governments had imposed unlawful rules and regulations in conspiracy with those unscrupulous persons. There should be no room for them in the NLD party, which the people have elected as they trust it. The speakers of the Union Parliament and the Lower House are urged to amend or cancel such unlawful rules and regulations in NLD-led parliament. What I want to emphasize is that rules, regulations, restrictions and disciplines should be learned before they are imposed. If they are not understandable, seek advice from real experts and those free from bias. If you speakers have no knowledge of this statement, think that there are perpetrators who are trying to tarnish the image of NLD-led parliament and government with the use of bureaucratic machinery and procedures. This is the first alarm bell for NLD to be aware of the fact that there could be confrontation with the people if it unknowingly allows those perpetrators.