BURMA: Elections without speech (or free press)

The Asian Human Rights Commission out of Hong Kong has been watching the run up to the elections later this year. (No date has been set.)

The AHRC is running a series of position papers on some of the problems it sees — besides the obvious that the main opposition party is not allowed to participate.

The latest in the series is Burma: Elections without speech.

In this paper the AHRC looks at how the repression of media and open discussion basically guarantees the elections will not solve the problems in the country or begin to heal the wounds caused by years of a brutal dictatorship.

When the military government of Burma passed five new laws and four bylaws during March in preparation for planned elections later this year, it attracted a lot of interest, discussion and analysis in the global media. The only place where the media did not pick up the story was in Burma, or Myanmar, itself. Aside from official announcements in the turgid state mouthpieces and some articles in news journals iterating the facts, there was no analysis, commentary or debate.

The absence of debate was not because the persons writing and publishing these periodicals did not want discussion, or even try to have some. According to various reports, journalists have interviewed experts and obtained views that they had thought would be printable. But instead, journals have so far been prohibited from covering anything significant about the laws at all, or the parties now registering for the upcoming ballot. The absurd situation exists of an election having been announced and the process of party registration begun without anything other than formal acknowledgement of these facts in the local media.

Controlling and harassing the media is an old game in Burma. Two years ago a journalist was arrested for shooting a video of a referendum vote.

As Burma heads for an election that was forced on the ruling generals by the rest of the world, the absence of free speech and free media make a strong case that these elections will be a sham.

But the blackout on news about the electoral process is not merely a question of media freedom. It is indicative of far deeper dysfunction that prohibits the possibility of free or fair elections. The problem is not just one of how journalists can communicate with their society but how their society can communicate with itself.

Previous papers on the elections are:

The next one is called “The politics of despair.”

Why should anyone other than Burmese care?

This is an object lesson about the importance of free and independent media to the governing and electoral processes. Without a fair and impartial arbiter to look at what the government and political candidates are saying and doing, the citizenry will not be able to make informed decisions.

Of course, one assumes the people have a say in governance. In Burma they don’t. But in the United States and other democracies they do. And it is the duty of journalists to make sure the citizens are properly informed about what is happening.

I have always liked the maxim (and this is probably not a 100% accurate quote): “We don’t report what you want to hear, we report what you NEED to know.”

And that is what dictators and fanatics have never liked about independent news media. So if you don’t want to learn about different sides of an issue, keep reading DailyKos or the Drudge Report.

BTW, notice that the AHRC is based in Hong Kong. This once again proves that civil liberties in Hong Kong are being protected despite Hong Kong falling under Chinese rule. (Can you think of any objective human rights group operating in mainland China?)

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Filed under Asia, International News Coverage, Press Freedom

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