Monday, July 24, 2017

Democratic blackout

Someone is playing with the switch when it comes to democratic principles.

Illustrations: Thein Tun OoIllustrations: Thein Tun Oo

AFTER the 2010 general elections, Myanmar began the painful transformation from a rogue state run by military junta towards a civilian government, freely elected by its citizens.

Shortly after elections, the two houses of parliament were brought back to life, and a vibrant legislative power started to check the executive.

Some started to dream of an overnight transformation to a fully functioning democratic state with all its checks and balances, but this was not so.

Democracy rests on three pillars: the executive, the legislative and an independent judiciary of court of laws. If one of these three pillars is weakened, the democratic edifice crumbles.

In theory, Myanmar has all these institutions in place.

But having a well-built house is one thing; living happily in it is another.

Myanmar’s democratic house needs to be functional enough for people to be able to decide how it should be run.

Aside from these three pillars democratic countries should also uphold freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Without a free press, citizens can hardly forge their opinion and make up their mind about the decisions taken on their behalf by their leaders.

In the democratic house, free speech is the electricity, if you will. Journalists are here to shed lights in the darkest corners of the house so nothing goes unnoticed.

People living in Myanmar have grown accustomed to daily power cuts. It seems that someone is also playing with the switch when it comes to democratic principles.

Herein lies a paradox. Our parliament is more representative than ever, our government has been freely elected by the people, but more journalists are prosecuted and put behind bars.

Is democracy just about the free and fair elections or is it also about upholding basic human rights? People in Myanmar starts to wonder.

U Win Htein, a spokesperson for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), told Weekend that freedom of expression was indeed important, but added that free speech was not, in itself, an idol.

What this close ally to Aung San Suu Kyi was refereeing to is Myanmar’s Telecommunication Law, and the way it has been used to silence legitimate dissent. Colloquially known as “66d” this legal instrument has disastrous effects on free speech.

Route 66d

Section 66d of the Telecommunication Law allows anyone who thinks someone else has been defamed to take the offender to court.

The definition is vague; the punishment goes up to three years of imprisonment.

In the previous militarily-led government of U Thein Sein, only 7 people were prosecuted under this much assailed section. But under the newly elected government, this number has gone up to 66. The trend is worrying.

A pressure group called the Telecommunications Research Team, revealed that there are nearly 166 cases waiting for the approval of the Ministry for Transport and Communications to be filed in court.

So far, 17 journalists have been charged, as well as 63 political activists and politicians.

But average citizens have also fallen fool of the law. Section 66d is not only a threat to the media, but to the wider public.

Maung Saung Kha, a poet, was arrested under 66d for allegedly defaming President Thein Sein in the run up of the 2015 election. He is leading the battle against the infamous clause.

“2017 can be called the worst year for free speech in Myanmar since 2010,” he says. “Freedom of expression is not only a concern for journalists. It matters for the arts and for innovation,”

According to him, the government overplays the security argument to curtail freedom of speech.

For U Than Zaw Aung, a prominent lawyer, the government treats freedom of speech like a paying Sadhu Ditha, a Buddhist buffet where everyone can come and eat offerings for free.

“Freedom of expression, we are told, is given out for free, but it turns out some have to pay a heavy price for it,” he said.

In his view the Constitution grants freedom of speech to all. But here comes the trick: it does so “according to the law”. For him, these laws are mainly here to protect the government, not the people. “To put it bluntly, we do not have freedom of speech in Myanmar,”.

U Than Zaw Aung has been a outright critic of 66d from the onset. Since 2007 he has taken up defending over 100 people who were simply exercising their right to freely speak their mind.

‘Free speech is a new thing for most people here’

Freedom of expression is in a poor state in Myanmar. But where do we stand in comparison to the rest of the world?

According to Reporters Without Borders, an ONG of journalists, Myanmar ranks 131 on a list of 180. It was further down the list last year, occupying the 143th position.

Among ASEAN countries, Myanmar ranks third, after Indonesia and Philippines.

“These rankings can be misleading as it might just mean than more countries are scoring worst than us,” explains U Thiha Saw, the secretary of the Myanmar Press Council.

“Our democracy is very young. Free speech is a new thing for most people here. Some aspects of it can be disruptive,” he says referring to the increasing number of hate-speech online. “Bad laws need to be changed, but the people must also become more mature,” he says.

What goes for citizens goes for the government, he explains. Voters must exercise their democratic rights of expression carefully, and rulers must use their democratic power in the same fashion.

For the moment this is not the case, according to him. Reporters are still imprisoned for simply doing their jobs. Recently, three reporters were charge under a colonial law for reporting on the situation in Shan state.

“It is obvious that the government and the Army show little respect for the freedom of the press,” says journalist U Ye Naing Moe, founder of Yangon Journalism School.

Protection for journalists exists. In 2014 a News Media law was passed. It ticked all the boxes. But it is not used, and it is overridden by other law such as 66d.

Journalists are fighting back. In June some of them started a campaign called “Stop Killing Press”.

Ma Sandar Maw is a member of Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, her and her colleagues wear a white arm band in protest against the situation of journalist in Myanmar.

“If the journalists print fake news, they can be prosecuted under the media law,” she says. But perhaps the journalists are in fact writing true stories, but the truth is sometime inconvenient.

U Soe Moe Tun, a court lawyer believes that journalists should not be treated differently. “The law applies to all citizens, regardless of their profession.”

He points out that the Constitution grants some rights, but that other laws limits and balance them.

Section 66d has received a lot of criticism. Last months, over 60 Human right organizations including local and international NGOs, criticized the existing law.

But the government sticks to its guns. NLD bigwig U Win Htein stressed that some media used 66d in the past, but received criticisms from their colleagues. In fact, he believes journalists are biased and corporatists.

“Criticism is healthy for a society,” says senior journalist and well-known analyst U Ye Naing Moe told Weekend. “Being allowed to speak freely is not a threat for the country. What is undermining the foundation of our democracy is the death of free speech,” he adds.

“Those who think democracy can be taken for granted should look at what happened in Thailand,” he concludes.

Our Parliament is considering an amendment to 66d – critics say it does not go far enough.

Even repealing the infamous article is not the end but only the beginning in the long and arduous road toward achieving a freer and a more enlightened society.