Some political parties in Myanmar have backed a call by Human Rights Watch for Myanmar’s national election body to revise broadcasting restrictions that they say prevent all parties from accessing state-owned media in the run-up to general elections in November.
Current broadcast regulations may harm freedom of speech for political parties which are required to obtain the Union Election Commission’s (UEC) approval for televised speeches to the public on state radio and television, said the New York-based rights group in a statement issued Aug. 14.
The presidentially appointed UEC is responsible for organizing and overseeing the country’s elections and for vetting parliamentary candidates.
The political parties are allowed to broadcast their policies, opinions, and plans on state-owned radio and TV stations from Sept. 8 to Nov. 6, two days before the elections. The UEC has limited the broadcast time for each political party to 15 minutes.
But the broadcasts must be pre-approved by the UEC under broad and vague restrictions on what political parties can say, in what HRW said is a violation of international standards for protecting freedom of speech.
“The UEC’s regulations hamstring the political opposition by effectively prohibiting any criticism of the government, existing laws, and the military,” Linda Lakhdhir, HRW’s Asia legal adviser, said in the statement.
“Doing so strikes at the heart of political speech and campaigning, and seriously undermines the fairness of the electoral process,” she said.
A transparent and independent body that is separate from the UEC should regulate broadcasting content during elections, and campaign material for broadcast should not need prior approval or be subject to undue limitation on topics allowed to be covered, HRW said.
‘Fighting with your hands tied’
Members of some of the roughly 100 political parties that have put forward candidates to run for parliamentary seats at the national, state, and regional levels backed HRW’s call.
Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said that UEC’s restrictions make it difficult for parties to compete against the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party. The army-backed USDP lost to the Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD in the 2015 election.
“Members of ruling party are now brazenly campaigning for the election through their government officials,” he said. “Their power as the ruling government gives them many advantages over other parties. For the rivals, it’s like fighting with your hands tied.”
Min Zeyar, vice chairman of People’s Party, a relatively new political party set up by the 88 Generation student leaders from 1980s pro-democracy protests, said the UEC’s restrictions promote unfair and nontransparent practices.
“Some restrictions imposed by the commission block equal opportunities and free speech for all political parties,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service, adding that his party has called for fair treatment and speech for all parties.
The UEC’s policies prohibit content that could disturb security, the rule of law, the harmony of ethnic groups, or peace and stability in the country. The UEC also has banned speeches that disrespect the constitution and other laws, defame the military, tarnish the country’s image, or harm dignity and morality.
Political parties must also refrain from speeches that could incite students, government employees, or religious adherents to oppose the government.
'Same as before'
Monywa Aung Shin, secretary of the NLD’s Central Information Committee, said that the election commission’s broadcast rules do not give the ruling party, which enjoys broad support in Myanmar, any advantages and that the same regulations were imposed before previous elections.
“All the materials to be used during the campaigning period after Sept. 8 require prior notification to be sent to the election commission,” he told RFA. “It is the same as before. I don’t think these restrictions are biased or give advantages to the ruling party.”
Kyaw Htin, program director of New Myanmar Foundation, an NGO that monitors elections, said the restrictions should not be imposed.
“All the parties, regardless of whether they are the ruling party, opposition party, or ethnic minority parties, should have a level playing field in broadcasting their materials via state media,” he said.
“The unnecessary restrictions should be removed for the parties to broadcast their plans and policies,” he said.
UEC officials told RFA that they could not comment on the issue on Tuesday.
Reported by Phyu Phyu Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.