The most important democratic institution in any society is a free and independent press. Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, once defended the free press by saying, «And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.» Free and independent journalism is the most important guardian of democracy and liberty. Where there exists a free and responsible press, there exists a free and responsible people.
Critical journalism is essential; it keeps those in power accountable for their actions. Journalism is democracy’s watchdog, barking loudly whenever threats to democracy and liberty arise. It ensures transparency, calls out abuse of power and corruption, and informs the public of what their elected officials are doing with the powers granted to them by the people. The role of journalism is to pursue truth, no matter how unflattering or embarrassing that truth may be; only then, can a country inch a bit closer to moral greatness, and form a more perfect society.
In Myanmar, government censorship of news outlets has eased since its democratic experiment began in 2010, but conditions for critical journalism are still harsh. According to the BBC, self-censorship remains a barrier for journalism in Myanmar. Journalists are wary of doing critical reporting on the military or the government in fear of reprimands; journalists in Myanmar are still being jailed for doing critical reporting. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists, were arrested after reporting on a massacre of ten Rohingya men in Rakhine State by the Burmese military, and had their seven-year prison sentences upheld in court on Friday.
According to Reporters Without Borders, press freedom has not been a priority of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. In fact, she has even defended the arrests of the two journalists, saying that they were not arrested for being journalists, but rather for breaking an archaic colonial-era state secrets law. The general public’s reaction to the arrests has been overwhelmingly disheartening; on social media, the two journalists have been called traitors, and many have said that they «got what they deserved» for reporting unflatteringly about the human rights conditions in Myanmar.
Thomas Jefferson once said, «The only security of all is in a free press.» In a country where democracy is young and fragile, and where it has not yet taken root, it is vital that people speak up in defense of democracy, freedom and common decency. The challenges Myanmar faces today are many, and in these tumultuous times, a free and independent press capable of doing critical journalism is more vital than ever. Yet, as Myanmar experiences what some call democratic backsliding, a term used to describe the erosion of democratic institutions and norms, Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and human rights icon, has failed time and again to stand up for the free press and basic human rights in the very country that she leads. If the National League for Democracy truly wants democracy to win, the party has to speak up for the most important democratic institution there is; the free press.