Press freedom in Hong Kong

Myanmar must not gag its media

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 April, 2013, 3:03am

Of all Myanmar's reforms, few are as fundamentally important to the nation's people as media freedom. The recent launch of four privately owned newspapers - the first of 16 given approval to publish daily by the quasi-civilian government - is a small but vital step on that road. A six-decade stranglehold on the press by the military deprived citizens of basic rights and information. Remaining doubts about authorities' sincerity and intentions will be vanquished if journalists are again able to do their jobs without fear or favour.

President Thein Sein gave that promise two years ago when he began economic and political liberalisation with a rush of reforms that are transforming the nation. The international focus has been on politics and the election to parliament of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, but the granting of rights and freedoms to citizens that were denied by the junta are also of great significance. Key to that was the decision last August to end draconian censorship rules that prevented open expression. Their removal was, in effect, the green light for free-wheeling competition to the state-run media.

But being able to operate freely and having a licence is no guarantee of an effective press. For it to do its job properly - give people a voice, keep institutions and the business and financial communities accountable, honest and transparent, while providing accurate information and entertainment - comes only with experience and investment. There has to be infrastructure, well-trained staff, printing and broadcasting equipment, and distribution networks. Myanmar has not had such a culture for two generations and it will take time for standards and ethics to take root.

Above all, the government has to stay at arm's length from the media. A bill before parliament containing provisions that could gag the press in certain circumstances threatens to roll back advances. If authorities are genuine about reform, they have to do their utmost to ensure that the media flourishes.