For journalists in Myanmar, the limits to what can be published have receded so fast over the past two years that they can sometimes appear indistinct. Reports about corruption and malpractice in the government have become commonplace, along with land confiscations and strikes sparked by oppressive working conditions.
But new boundaries appear to be emerging. The recent unrest in the National League for Democracy (NLD), for example, has been virtually unreported in many major publications. This has prompted some to question whether editors and journalists are hesitant to print articles that portray Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in a negative light.
As The Myanmar Times reported recently, NLD members in Ayeyarwady and Mandalay regions have staged large protests over the organisation of the party’s upcoming national assembly. A third protest, also in Mandalay, was called off because police refused to permit the original protest application.
While some editors refused to comment on the media blackout, Ko Ahr Mahn, the executive editor of 7Day News, which bills itself as the highest-selling private weekly journal, said his publication had not published news on the party’s internal conflicts because it was hard to ascertain where the blame lies.
“We knew about the conflict in the NLD but for every internal conflict in the political parties we decided that we need to confirm the real details. As you know in this NLD issue, both sides, the demonstrators and the party’s commissioners, said they are right so according to our journal policy, we did not publish this in the journal,” said Ko Ahr Mahn.
“For reporting on political news, we always try to listen to both sides. As for news about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, it depends on the journal’s policy. Maybe some publish only positive news … but sometimes it is very hard to analyse who is wrong and right. At that time, we won’t publish that news,” he said.
But Ahr Mahn said some local media had started giving more coverage to “missteps” by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her party.
Kyaw Swar Min, editor-in-chief of Yangon Times, said his journal ran a short article on the disputes within the NLD and would give the issue more column inches if it escalates further. He said readers largely dictated the paper’s editorial policy.
“We choose stories with a human interest angle – it really depends on what we think our readers want. So if the NLD conflict is bigger, we will cover it using several sources for accuracy,” he said.
But other editors were more direct in explaining the lack of coverage given to the protests. Trade Times’ Ko Min Zaw Oo said readers wanted to see negative news about the government because they were still “cross” about having to live under military rule for 23 years.
“And the media industry as well, we have been oppressed by the military government for years, so [journalists also] want to oppose the government in this transition period as much as they can. They also want to read bad news about the government, just like the readers do,” he said.
“But journalists have to make their own decisions about what should be published and have to pay more attention to ethics.”
The issue is also being played out on social media, where those who criticise the party or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can expect to face vitriolic attacks from other users.
“We have a lot of complaints if we post negative things about the NLD and Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This helps local journals know what their audience wants. If they publish positive news about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities and criticise the government, their readership will grow,” said a Thailand-based freelance journalist.
Some publications are bucking the trend. Last week, Mizzima ran news about the protests on its front page but editor Ko Myo Thant conceded it might backfire with readers.
“Journals will think they can get a bad response from readers if they publish that kind of news because in the past circulation often depended on having news and pictures about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. But we shouldn’t just do what readers want, especially if it is unethical,” he said.
The Irrawaddy has also been unafraid to print negative articles about the NLD, despite the unhappy comments from readers that they normally generate.
“We’re not going to be a mouthpiece for the NLD,” said U Ye Ni, the editor of the publication’s Myanmar language edition. “We will focus on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD relative to the people’s interest, social issues, the economy and health, and we will criticise them if necessary,” he said.
There has been no suggestion that the party has tried to discourage journalists from writing negative articles. But U Ye Ni also said Irrawaddy journalists had reported the party’s media contacts were becoming “more like government officials” in their reluctance to be interviewed.
The Myanmar Times has called the NLD’s headquarters numerous times over the past two weeks and received no response.