As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Myanmar this week, the Press Council of India and the Myanmar Press Council signed a memorandum of understanding to foster greater media cooperation.
The agreement is to pave the way for exchanges between journalists from the two countries, and “promote better understanding of political and economic developments in India and Myanmar”.
According to reports, the memorandum also aims to encourage “peace journalism”. Among other things, this involves the exchange of knowledge and experience on “non-violent, peaceful journalism”, and “restraint” in the coverage of matters that are likely to escalate conflict. The aim of such journalism, reportedly, is to be a “catalyst in de-escalating conflict”.
The two countries share a 1,640-kilometre border along India’s North East. This includes states such as Nagaland and Manipur, both of which have seen decades of militancy. A number of militant camps are said to be located in Myanmar, where India is believed to have carried out a policy of “hot pursuit” as it launched military strikes across the border.
Neither country ranks high on press freedom. India fell three places to place 136 out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders in 2017. Myanmar fared only marginally better at 131.
Freedom of the press: Myanmar
In 2016, the United States-based democracy watchdog, Freedom House, rated the Myanmar press “not free”. It notes that a broadcasting law introduced in 2015 allowed private players into the broadcast market for the first time, though presidential control of the sector and political interference continued. Other media laws allows the government to withhold licences and to ban reporting considered harmful to “national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility,” which “insults religion” or violates the constitution.
Under the military regime in Myanmar, notes a representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the country had one of the most “repressive media environments”. While news critical of the junta was blotted out, a large number of journalists who dared defy censorship rules were imprisoned. With the advent of a quasi-civilian government in 2011, some of these curbs were lifted. But one year into State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi’s tenure, the committee observes, Myanmar lagged behind on press freedom, with the government not having done enough to abolish the restrictive laws of the previous regime.
A provision in the country’s Telecommunications Law allows imprisonment for up to three years for defamation on communications networks. According to one estimate, in the one year of Suu Kyi’s tenure, 55 cases have been filed under this provision, including against social media users critical of the state counsellor.
Journalists report a taboo on a wide range of topics, from high-level corruption to communal violence to the military’s various operations. The military is also reported to have blocked access to and blacked out news on western Rakhine State, the site of an operation launched last October.
Freedom of the press: India
As for India, Freedom House rated the press “partly free” in both 2016 and 2017. It noted that two journalists had been killed for their work in 2016, that the Supreme Court had upheld criminal defamation, that journalists in Chhattisgarh worked under tremendous pressure, with some having to relocate for their safety, that authorities imposed heavy restrictions in Jammu and Kashmir.
According to Reporters Without Borders, the press in India was under threat from “Hindu nationalists” who would wipe out all “anti-national” thought from national debates. “Radical nationalists” have launched “online smear campaigns” against journalists, it observed, even threatening them with physical reprisals. The existence of sedition laws had also fostered self-censorship, the organisation notes.
Reporting from sensitive areas such as Kashmir, it continues, was especially difficult, with no protective mechanisms. “Journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent”, it said.
As Modi signed memorandums of understanding with the state counsellor this week, Gauri Lankesh, the editor of the Kannada weekly Gauri Lankesh Patrike and a vocal critic of Hindutva politics, was shot dead outside her house in Bangalore.