Anyone reading Burma’s independent media ahead of next month’s historic election might be unaware that more than 90 political parties are competing, as online platforms and newspapers are plastered with the image of one candidate – Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.
Just five years ago, newspapers that reported on or published pictures of pro-democracy leader Suu Kyi were penalised by the ruling military junta. Suu Kyi was freed by the junta in 2010 after house arrest for 15 of the previous 21 years.
The change in coverage has been so dramatic since junta-era media controls were relaxed in 2011 that one international media watchdog said the pro-Suu Kyi bias threatened the status of what has been billed as the first free and fair election in the country for 25 years.
“Until and unless there is a free and fair media, we cannot have free and fair elections and a free and fair government too,” said Ma Thida, president of the Burmese branch for media watchdog PEN International, when asked about the impact of the pro-Suu Kyi media bias on the vote.
At 7Day News, one of Myanmar’s best-selling newspapers, Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party dominate coverage. An analysis of 100 Facebook posts from the last week provided by 7Day News showed 19 posts on the NLD and four on the governing Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
“The public interest is with the NLD,” editor-in-chief Thaung Su Nyein told Reuters. “If you’re writing about another party, no one wants to read that, so they flip it over.”
State-run television and print media however continue to dedicate most of their coverage to President Thein Sein.
Suu Kyi’s rock-star status in the private media contrasts with coverage ahead of the 1990 election, when all media was state-run and toed a pro-government line, and Suu Kyi was under house arrest and unable to campaign.
The NLD won with a landslide despite the restrictions, but the military ignored the result of the vote.
Now, journalists in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, will cover the 8 November election with few restrictions and many make no secret of their support for the democracy icon. Some address her as “Mother Suu”.
“I love her. To write anything critical or negative about her, I have to think very carefully,” said Naw Ko Ko, a politics writer for newspaper The Voice.
If the NLD wins the vote, as is widely expected, Suu Kyi has said she plans to lead the next government, even though the constitution drafted by the military bars her from becoming president.
The campaigns of other opposition parties, as well as that of the ruling USDP, have been given short shrift in the independent press. The USDP did not respond to a request for comment.
The ruling party is comprised largely of former military officers and was created from a social movement established by the former junta.
The bias toward the NLD reflects the fact that the election “is a revolution for most people – this is the chance to throw away these guys, to kick them out,” said Thiha Saw, president of the Myanmar Journalists Association.