YANGON—As Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) celebrates one year in office, a civil society coalition led by PEN Myanmar noted a significant lack of progress in reforming the landscape for free expression, calling on her government to prioritize concrete steps to promote free speech and media freedom as core components of Myanmar’s nascent democracy.

The May 2017 Scorecard—compiled by PEN Myanmar and a range of 13 partners—assesses the current landscape for free expression, examining and scoring six key indicators: laws and regulations, media independence and freedom, digital freedom, right to information, safety and security, and freedom of assembly, speech, and opinion. The total score of only 8 out of 60 possible points indicates that a significant lack of progress in instituting key reforms to secure free expression in Myanmar, with four indicators receiving scores of only one point each (no improvement) and two receiving two points each (showing very little progress).

“While participants in the Scorecard process acknowledge that the challenges involved in reversing decades of repression are significant, in multiple areas the government has failed even to explicate a clear path forward,” said Zar Chi Oo, Program Manager at PEN Myanmar. “The government has the power to promote media freedom and freedom of expression, but hasn’t made it a priority.”

Among the Scorecard’s main findings:

  • While the new government has amended and enacted dozens of laws in the past year, the vast majority of laws restricting free expression have not been included in the parliamentary agenda, despite engagement and advocacy by civil society organizations (CSOs).
  • An important positive step in the legal sphere was the rescinding of the Emergency Provisions Act.
  • Media ownership remains problematic, with no plans to close state-controlled print media, nor clarity with regards to transforming the state broadcaster MRTV into a public service broadcaster. Broadcast media remains largely owned by business cronies of the military and former government.
  • There are insufficient protective mechanisms—such as the News Media Council, which is not yet fully independent—for journalists or media outlets.
  • There have been more than 55 defamation cases brought using Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, used by politicians, government officials, and members of the public to curtail criticism or seek revenge.
  • Although the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law has been amended and some restrictions waived, enforcement is still weak in remote areas and some local officials continue to abide by old regulations.
  • It is easier to obtain permission to hold cultural events, such as film festivals, literary talks, and CSO forums.
  • There has been little movement on passing a Right to Information law, and access to official information remains patchy and difficult to obtain in practice.
  • Impunity remains the norm, with no progress in journalists’ murder cases dating from 2014 (Ko Par Gyi) and 2016 (Ko Soe Moe Tun).
  • While there is less fear of surveillance under the NLD government, journalists feel unsafe when conducting sensitive investigations, and access to many conflict areas remains tightly controlled.

 “We join our colleagues, leaders from Myanmar’s media and civil society, in calling on the NLD government to urgently prioritize free expression reforms,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “Building a strong foundation for democratic development will be impossible without also fostering a more open society, allowing diverse voices to flourish, and encouraging transparency and accountability. This Scorecard provides a balanced assessment and a detailed set of recommendations to improve the environment for the foundational right of free speech.”

As documented in PEN America’s December 2015 report Unfinished Freedom: A Blueprint for the Future of Free Expression in Myanmar and PEN Myanmar’s December 2016 pilot Free Expression Score Card, a range of restrictive laws, many held over from colonial or military rule, remain on the books in Myanmar and continue to chill media and online speech. The government’s continued failure to prioritize media reform and to seriously address other human rights issues, including coverage of the humanitarian crisis in northern Rakhine State and increasing conflict in Shan and Kachin States, has fueled concerns that recent gains in the climate for free expression are in danger. The overall environment for free expression thus remains challenging for practitioners, both within the media and cultural sectors as well as ordinary citizens.

The May 2017 Scorecard was developed and produced by PEN Myanmar with support from PEN America, and is available in English and Burmese.

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CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Director for Communications, PEN America: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646-779-4830

Zar Chi Oo, Program Manager, PEN Myanmar: zarchioo.penmm@gmail.com, +95-95055041 or +95-979 5380745