YANGON - The United Nations Sunday urged Myanmar to ensure that journalists can report "without fear" during crucial general elections later this year as the former junta-ruled nation marked World Press Freedom Day in Yangon.
The call comes amid international concerns that Myanmar is backtracking on media freedoms won since the country began emerging from outright military rule in 2011, after a slew of journalist arrests and the death of a freelance reporter in army custody last year.
"We urge authorities to make special efforts during the election period to ensure that the media community has free and full access, and reports freely without fear and intimidation from anyone," said Sardar Umar Alam, head of the Myanmar office for the UN's culture agency UNESCO.
Alam was speaking at an event co-organised by UNESCO and the ministry of information.
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who delivered the keynote speech at the event, also reflected on the media's role ahead of the November election, which is seen as a key test of the country's political transition.
The press can help ensure "a free and fair election" she told an audience of more than 100 people including journalists, government officials and the UK and US ambassadors to Myanmar, at a hotel in downtown Yangon.
"Our country's journey towards democracy has stalled. I urge Myanmar's press community to help restart that journey," she said, adding that genuine press freedom in Myanmar "has a long way to go".
The Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar 144 of 180 countries and territories for press freedom in its annual list, from best to worst, released in February.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government has ushered in sweeping press reforms since coming to power in 2011, including the release of jailed journalists and scrapping draconian pre-publication censorship, which once applied to everything from fairy tales to the lottery.
But relations between the government and the often rambunctious press have worsened in recent months, with prosecutions against the media that have seen several journalists handed prison terms.
At the event on Sunday, Information Minister Ye Htut said that "press freedom alone can't deliver true information to people", claiming media organisations held their own biases.