Repressive laws, media bias thwart Myanmar democracy

MYANMAR - Despite dramatic reforms introduced in recent years, the process of democratization in Myanmar is still being challenged by repressive laws and media bias, civil society groups say.

Representatives from eight Myanmar NGOs are currently visiting Jakarta to learn more about Indonesia's experience in its transition to democracy.

In a visit to The Jakarta Post as part of their nine-day sharing programme with Indonesian civil society on Thursday, they raised their concerns over media freedom, an essential element in the democratic process, particularly as the country prepares for its 2015 general election.

"Media activists are struggling with existing laws in Myanmar. There still exist oppressive and discriminatory laws on media freedom," said Ko Aung, capacity-building coordinator for the Equality of Myanmar.

The reform process has been under way after the country's election in November 2010, when military rule was replaced by a new military-backed civilian government. The junta that ruled Myanmar for decades, said 2010 marked the transition from military rule to civilian democracy.

The Post's editor-in-chief, Meidyatama Suryodiningrat, said that in any country there would always be discriminatory laws against the media. "That's the nature of the game. But the fundamental question is, has your society changed and accepted the norms and values of free speech and free association?" Meidyatama said.

He added that the media could lose in a court of law, but not in the court of public opinion, which was the real battleground.

Another representative from the group, Myo Win of the Smile Education and Development Foundation, said media ethics was still a big problem in Myanmar.

"Media outlets are very biased on reporting sectarian issues. The bias leads to people mistrusting one another. Even the mainstream media, including the government media, are very biased in reporting on sectarian issues," Win said.

He went on to say that "modern Burma [Myanmar] needed to establish good media ethics" for a more meaningful transition within the country.

Myo added that the 11 mainstream media outlets were still out of balance when reporting on conflicts, such as the Rohingya-Rakhine issue. They tended to solely report that the attacks were conducted by Bengali (Rohingya) against the Rakhine, he said.

"The media never report the opposite, although the facts on the ground show that the Rakhine have also attacked the Bengali," he said.

"Sadly, when I talk with editors, they respond that, 'we don't follow media ethics; we follow our own policy'."

During its time in Indonesia, the group also visited the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) and the Indonesia Press Council.