Sunday, August 20, 2017

In Myanmar, ‘right to know’ legislation left lagging

Access to information remains a key issue in Myanmar, media figures say, despite the developments in the sector over the past few years.

The comedian U Zarganar takes questions from members of the media during a press conference at Novotel hotel in Yangon on November 11. Photo: Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar TimesThe comedian U Zarganar takes questions from members of the media during a press conference at Novotel hotel in Yangon on November 11. Photo: Nyan Zay Htet / The Myanmar Times

A discussion on the Right to Information Law held last week at the tech start-up Phandeeyar Innovation Lab tackled this topic, with attendees saying the lack of information surrounding development of the draft Right to Information bill neatly underscores the country’s glaring lack of transparency.

Ma Yin Yadanar, country representative of the UK-based freedom of information lobby group Article 19, said despite having watched closely for developments, their organisation had no information regarding where the Right to Information bill is in the drafting process.

“It is difficult to talk about the progress of the draft bill since we have no information about it,” she said, adding that the Right to Information bill did not make the cut on the government’s parliamentary committee priority list.

Ma Yin Yadanar suggested that there are measures the government could take in the interim to improve transparency on the Right to Information bill.

“The bill will not immediately be published so what we can encourage is for the government to show their process,” she said.

The chief reporter for Myanmar Now, Ko Swe Win, said similar attitudes toward the right to information had carried over from the U Thein Sein era into the National League for Democracy-led government of today.

“For them, ‘right to information’ is that they will provide the information as they wish, and that is enough. They think that providing the information as they wish is enough, since they are not hiding information like the previous military government did,” he said.

In an address to the fifth annual Myanmar Media Development Conference held in Yangon earlier this month, Information Minister U Pe Myint also conceded that there are still major barriers in place for journalists in Myanmar.

“If we compare with the previous four or five years, our media sector has developed – everybody can see that Myanmar media is currently progressing with freedom, [but] there are still weaknesses and difficulties in accessing information,” he said.

Ma Ei Myat Noe Khin from Phandeeyar said she believes the right to information is something urgently required in Myanmar, along with codified freedom of expression.

Myanmar's internet still 'not free': watchdog

Many journalists say they find information is presented in the form of press releases, while raw data and primary source materials that would allow them to verify official information are rarely issued. Ko Swe Win said greater transparency is crucial in order for journalists to perform their jobs in a meaningful way.

“We journalists have the responsibility to verify the information and we need the primary data in order to do so,” he said.

Making information available online should also be made a key priority, Ko Swe Win added.

“Now we have the internet and everything is online. Instead of applying personally or via fax or posts to get the information, we should be able to get the data and information in one click,” he said.

This was echoed by Ma Yin Yadanar, who said a clear timeframe for bringing government processes into the 21st century would be helpful.

“Government offices are still using the paper documents systems and that needs to be computerised. We can ask the government about their timeline regarding that,” she said.