Media freedom motion crushed

Deputy information minister Pike Htwe angrily responds to MP Phyo Min Thein’s proposal (Photo-EMG)

An opposition MP tabled a motion to Parliament on Friday, calling on the government to make sure through legal procedures that media outlets can operate freely as press freedom is systematically being infringed, but the proposal was voted down heavily by MPs. 

Phyo Min Thein, MP from the National League for Democracy (NLD) for Hlegu Township in Yangon, said the government should make legal moves to enable the media to operate freely and take responsibility and accountability for its own actions. 

He said media freedom was essential as Myanmar was in a democratic transition, adding that only with complete media freedom could the people monitor the government in a democratic way. 

The MP pointed out that one aim of the Media Law enacted in March last year was to allow the emergence of a news media capable of expressing, publishing and distributing freely as part of the rights enshrined in the Constitution.  

He said together with the law, an independent press council would emerge but it should be formed after a free and fair election by the media. If the council was formed with media people, it would show the correct stance of the government over media freedom, he added.

“In other countries, democratic standards are measured by how free the media is. But the reports about media oppression in Myanmar could harm the state’s image. It could also tarnish the image of state leaders,” said Phyo Min Thein. 

“There are several instances of how the media is intentionally targeted for oppression. Everyone knows that the murder of freelance reporter Par Gyi has horrified the whole industry. Another example is the Information Ministry’s lawsuit against the Eleven Media Group [EMG]. The EMG is facing charges under section 500 [penal code for defamation] for reporting about the loss of public funds, as there were wide discrepancies between the prices of printing offsets purchased abroad by the Information Ministry and their actual prices. Actually, the charges against the media group should be in line with the Media Law. It is a threat to media freedom and public wellbeing. Another case is about Unity Weekly’s coverage of a secret chemical weapons factory in Pauk Township. Pakokku District Court sentenced five staff members, including the chief executive officer, to 10 years each in prison with hard labour after charging them under the Official Secrets Act. There is no official evidence that the factory is a state secret. 

“It is clear that media freedom is being systematically encroached upon,” Phyo Min Thein told Parliament.    

He said the law’s chapter 2, section 3(f) stated that any complaints were to be settled and negotiated in a conciliatory manner. However, charging and imprisoning journalists disrespected Parliament and the president, who signed the law, while harming Myanmar’s international reputation, the MP added. 

He also pointed to other difficulties the media faced, such as the reluctance of ministries and the police to accept reporters at news conferences and answer phone calls. 

A visibly angry Pike Htwe, the deputy minister of information, replied: "It's wrong to say the ministry filed the lawsuit without consulting the [interim] Press Council. We made it clear that we had tried twice held discussions using the Press Council as a mediator. They rejected our offers and started solving the conflict through legal means. We have enough evidence to cement this fact. I strongly suggest you listen to the both sides before you give your opinion. There's no reason for journalists to end up in court if they follow media ethics regulated by the Press Council and the standing laws."

The motion was defeated by 217 votes to 51.

After the vote, Phyo Min Thein told the media: "I'll continue striving to achieve this. I was disappointed and I'm not sure the Parliament really listens to the voice of the people. I said the Lower House is responsible for pushing for liberty of information. I won’t give up."

NLD chairperson Aung San Suu Kyi said: "The proposal just called for matters to be run in line with the law. I have no idea why it was rejected. You'd better ask those who voted against the motion."