Burma’s state-run broadcaster will carry 15-minute party political broadcasts throughout the 60-day campaign period ahead of the general election on 8 November, but authorities say they will reserve the right to block parties from the airwaves.
The Union Election Commission (UEC) and the Ministry of Information (MoI) will require parties to submit full transcripts of intended radio and television broadcasts seven days before scheduled appearances on Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) channels, according to a notice posted in government mouthpiece The Global New Light of Myanmar.
The statement dictated a number of red lines, which if crossed would see political parties blocked from appearing on MRTV, an opportunity to reach potential voters that arguably could not be matched elsewhere.
The non-negotiable conditions include: “Broadcasts deemed to have a detrimental effect on national consolidation, security, the rule of law, the dignity of the armed forces, racial, religious or individual rights, or is in violation of existing laws.”
Parties and observers have been quick to question the right of the ministry or the commission to pre-judge political messages made by parties, all of whom have been approved by the UEC to contest the upcoming ballot.
Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), confirmed to DVB that the office of its chairperson, Aung San Suu Kyi, is currently drafting a 15-minute presentation to be submitted for scrutiny.
Suu Kyi appeared on state television in 2012, taking advantage of a time slot allotted to the NLD ahead of a bi-election of that year. The party went on to win 43 out of the 44 seats it contested, seeing Suu Kyi elevated into Burma’s lower house.
But while the NLD will again play by the rules, the party says it does not approve of them.
“We are not worried about being censored by the UEC or the MoI, because we will abide by their guidelines. This is the situation we’re faced with,” said party spokesperson Nyan Win.
“We don’t believe it is fair. Why should parties have to seek permission from the government before we broadcast on television? Everyone should be able to broadcast without permission.
“But we accept it is the situation,” he said, adding that voters could expect to be introduced to the NLD manifesto via the MRTV broadcast, including the party’s positions on agriculture, labour rights and the economy.
Criticism of the UEC’s influence on the flow of information between election contestants and voters has not been restricted to the parties themselves.
Burma’s Interim Press Council held an ’emergency internal meeting’ on Friday to discuss a series of perceived limitations placed on press coverage of the November vote. The veteran journalists are scheduled to meet the UEC on Sunday.
Council member Zaw Thet Htwe believes that telling political parties what they can and cannot say on air goes against the commission’s stated ambition of hosting a “free and fair” election.
“They [the UEC] shouldn’t restrict political parties’ right to free speech by appealing to notions such as ‘non-disintegration of the union’ or ‘defaming the military’. That would not be in the spirit of their past promise of free and fair elections. In fact, that would be breaking their promise. If a political party is blocked from appearing on state-run media, then I would have to doubt the integrity of the election,” Zaw Thet Htwe said.
On Sunday, council members say they will also raise the UEC’s decision to place an election-day limit of three staff per news outlet per polling station, a move that Zaw Thet Htwe characterised as “totally unacceptable” and a block on the constitutional right of reporters to work freely.