Myanmar's Election Commission and Press Council agree to cooperate on transparent and fair elections

The Myanmar Press Council and the Union Election Commission met for the first time in preparation for the country’s General Elections in 2020. The meeting, convened by UNESCO and held in Nay Pyi Taw on 23 July, was a turning point in the relationship between media and the elections management body, paving the way for better cooperation and sharing of information between the Union Election Commission and journalists.

Since the abolition of pre-publication censorship in Myanmar in 2012, private media has experienced an unprecedented expansion. Yet, official institutions, rarely scrutinized and questioned by reporters, combined with inexperienced and, in many cases, undertrained journalists in the Myanmar media, has led to a rocky relationship between both sides. Continued prosecutions of journalists have also contributed to an environment stifling free and fair reporting.

In this context, the dialogue helped the Union Election Commission better understand the role of the media, and the Press Council learned first-hand the challenges and frustrations experienced by the electoral body when communicating with journalists. By the end of the dialogue, both parties agreed to work together to update elections reporting guidelines developed for previous elections. In addition, they concurred to continue discussing critical issues, such as access to polling stations on voting day and regular interactions with reporters to ensure a smooth electoral process. 

Given the Myanmar public’s general lack of experience in participating in elections, the media has an important role in contributing to voter education. “The media, as well as CSOs [civil-society organizations], should help in educating the public in the electoral process, including informing the citizens to check if they are in the eligible voters’ lists before these are finalized by the Commission,” said U Hla Thein, Chair of the Union Election Commission.

The Chair of the Myanmar Press Council, U Ohn Kyaing, urged the media to “assume their responsibility and to be more impartial and professional than in the previous elections”, in reference to monitoring reports from the 2015 election that pointed out that the media favored coverage of a local political party. U Ohn Kyaing also reminded the Union Election Commission that the media had the responsibility to allow them to exercise their “right to reply” in case they felt that coverage of the Commission’s work was unfair or inaccurate.

As more ethnic-based parties are expected to take part in the next elections, political analysts are anticipating risks from divisive rhetoric and polarized journalism based on ethnic affiliations. “The media will need to apply a conflict-sensitive approach to reporting,” said Min Jeong Kim, Head of UNESCO Myanmar.

She also warned about the possibility of increased incidences of hate speech and misinformation during the elections. “Journalists must avoid amplifying the voices of those who want to divide,” Ms Kim said. “As guarantors of democracy, they should hold to account those who put a peaceful and harmonious electoral process at risk by spreading irresponsibly hateful and divisive messages.”

The dialogue in Nay Pyi Taw was part of UNESCO’s efforts to strengthen freedom of expression and to address the issues of hate speech and disinformation in Myanmar.

This activity is supported by the Multi-Donor Programme on Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists.