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World Press Freedom Day celebrated for the second year in Myanmar

3 May 2013, Yangon - Myanmar journalists celebrated World Press Freedom Day for the second consecutive year on 03 May 2013, with much hope amidst a growing, vibrant news media industry.

Group Photo

The Union Minister for Information, H.E. Aung Kyi

U Win Tin recipient of the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2001.

During a joint commemorative event organized by the Ministry of Information (MoI) and the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA) with support from UNESCO, key media stakeholders expressed their commitment to promote and protect their newfound freedom of expression. 

The country was under dictatorship for almost half a century until the government of President U Thein Sein introduced wide-ranging democratic reforms in 2012.

Union Minister for Information H.E. Aung Kyi emphasized in his remarks that the news media’s role today is to serve as a watchdog of government and to safeguard the rights of individuals. According to U Aung Kyi, “democracy can never be guaranteed by politicians alone.” He emphasized that an independent media is a vital component of the check and balance system in democratic societies.

The information minister lamented that in the past, the news media was used to promote propaganda, persuasion and education. But today, “creating a free and safe environment for journalists and media workers is not only important for our government, but also very crucial for all the stakeholders of the Myanmar media industry in pursuit of strengthening peace, democracy, and sustainability of our country.”

The event was made even more significant with the presence of U Win Tin, the 84-year old former journalist who was imprisoned for almost 20 years by past regimes for his writings. He was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2001 but was not able to receive his award as he was still in prison then. He was released years later, in 2008.

“It was like being honored the second time,” said U Win Tin of the opportunity to speak at the event attended by government officials, members of the diplomatic community, local and international journalists, and media NGOs. “I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel,” he noted, acknowledging the media reforms now happening in the country. “But there are still some restrictions and we must continue our struggle for press freedom.”  He also reminded the media community of the need to “identify and address the wrongs committed or we will forever be misguided.” He challenged journalists to practice investigative journalism to seek out the truth.

U Kyaw Min Swe of the interim Myanmar Press Council and U Ko Ko of the MJA both stressed the need to be vigilant in protecting and preserving press freedom. The Council secretary said the Press Law drafted by the Council will be submitted to the MoI and the Parliament soon and noted that its provisions must meet international legal standards. Meanwhile, U Ko Ko challenged his colleagues to take every opportunity to participate in the crafting of media laws and make the process consultative and inclusive.

With the growing number of media outlets being allowed to operate, a serious challenge according to U Ko Ko is finding competent reporters and editors. He warned that the lack of professional journalists does not only compromise the viability of news organizations but endangers press freedom itself as this could lead to irresponsible and inaccurate reporting and, worse, corruption.

Ever since the government allowed the publication of private dailies in April 2013, 26 individuals and organizations have been given the green light to publish. Of this number, seven have already seen print. In addition, a number of foreign news agencies were recently allowed to open branches in the country.

A “challenged past”—that was how UNESCO media development specialist Ramon R. Tuazon described Myanmar’s media landscape during the past dispensations. He recalled that it was an era of “guided newspapering” characterized by official censorship and self-censorship. He described the current landscape as a period of reform and hope. He also enumerated the many challenges facing media stakeholders to ensure that the newfound democratic space is preserved and even widened. He ended his speech by reminding the audience of their collective responsibility: “We congratulate the people of Myanmar for having laid down a road map to freedom. There is no other way. There should be no other way.”

The joint call by UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon and UNESCO director general Irina Bokova for governments, societies and individuals to do their utmost to protect the safety of all journalists was read by Mr. Sardar Umar Alam, UNESCO Myanmar head of office. The message reiterated the UN’s commitment to coordinate actions, raise awareness and support countries in upholding international principles and developing legislation for freedom of expression and information.

The day-long celebration ended with a separate event, the 2nd National Press Award, sponsored by the MJA which gave recognition to local journalists for outstanding reportage in six categories – news, editorial, features, photojournalism, editorial cartoon, and broadcasting. This was held at the national theatre. The Voice Weekly Journal won in three categories – news, feature and editorial cartoon.