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Observers of press freedom in Burma have slammed the government for implementing a total ban on members of the media from entering the country’s parliamentary chambers.
The Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) on Thursday released a statement criticising the move which bars journalists from entering parliament’s upper and lower houses. The new restrictions came after MPs were snapped in unflattering situations, including sleeping and voting for absent colleagues.
“The MJN believes that the public deserves to know what issues the MPs in parliament discuss, and how they vote on them. We believe that banning reporters from covering how MPs vote effectively restricts the public’s right to information,” said the 4 June statement.
The government has flip-flopped on the matter, initially introducing a temporary ban on journalists from entering the press gallery that was due to end on 1 June. However, rather than repealing the ban on Wednesday, Naypyidaw extended it indefinitely.
Parliamentary Speaker Shwe Mann on Wednesday told reporters that access has been restricted to “prevent undesirable issues”, and confirmed that the ban is directly connected to the image of the MP casting two votes.
“The Myanmar Journalist Network has seen that a media organisation recently published a portrayal of how military MPs vote in the legislative session as it was newsworthy for the public,” said the release.
“The Union Parliament’s speaker, when addressing media reporters, said that the ban on media reporters was directly related to the case [of the image of the MP] and was meant to prevent undesirable problems in the future,” it went on to say.
Sam Zarifi of the International Commission of Jurists told DVB that the ban was a violation of rights.
“Legally, one of the core reasons for maintaining the press’s freedom of expression is so that it can provide the public with adequate information for an accountable and representative government. Banning the media from covering parliament absolutely violates the rights of the press and the public,” said Zarifi.
“Obviously this violation can’t be justified on the grounds that it will cast a negative light on legislators who are carrying out their duties responsibly. That’s the whole point of having the press there. So the current situation in Myanmar [Burma] is clearly out of line with international standards and we hope the ban will be removed immediately,” he added.
Ever-present concerns about press freedom in Burma were voiced yet again last week when a group of reporters attempted to reach Leik Kyun (Turtle Island), near to Hainggyi Island in Irrawaddy Division, where around 700 migrants were being held after being intercepted by the navy. The reporters were released on the condition that they sign pledges not to return to the area.
The MJN said this development was a dangerous warning about the media climate in Burma.
“The issue of boat people on Hainggyi Island is a very important matter for the country, but the organisation tasked with security around the island has not only stopped reporters access from the area but also restricted them from returning to the area. The MJN view this as limiting the country’s right to information – the right to learn about events truly taking place,” said the statement.
The MJN have called on Naypyidaw to allow media access to crucial events in the country to allow the Burmese public to be informed.
Zaw Thet Htwe, an editor in Rangoon and former political prisoner, said that the government are acting on emotions.
“Instead of moving ahead with the democratic transition, [the government] are still prioritising their personal emotions. This indicates instability in the future and a lack of strong institutional mindset among officials,” he said.
Burma was recently listed alongside North Korea, Eritrea and Saudi Arabia in a newly compiled shortlist of the world’s ten most censored countries by the Committee to Protect Journalists, following a year that saw deaths and arrests among journalists in the supposedly transitioning state.