Free expression watchdog shares thoughts on Myanmar

20 February 2015
Free expression watchdog shares thoughts on Myanmar
Mr David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Photo: United Nations

How can ongoing legal changes in Myanmar – still emerging from nearly five decades of isolation – lead to an atmosphere that promotes press freedom, rather than limiting it?
Mr David Kaye, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and others will answer that question at the International Press Institute (IPI)’s 2015 World Congress and General Assembly from March 27 to 29 in Yangon.
Mr Kaye will join U Ye Htut, Myanmar’s information minister, and M Toby Mendel, executive director of the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy, in the March 27 session “Upholding Media Freedom Through Laws and Practice.” Moderated by IPI Interim Executive Director Barbara Trionfi, the panellists will discuss the impact on media of recent legal developments in Myanmar, as well as the potential for a more independent press going forward.
Registration for IPI’s World Congress and General Assembly is currently open. More information, including thefull programme, is available or the link at the end of this story.
A clinical professor of law at the University of California, Irvine, Mr Kaye was appointed as special rapporteur by the UN Human Rights Council to serve a three-year term starting on Aug. 1, 2014. He recently spoke with IPI Contributor Ms April Reino about Myanmar and the challenges his current role presents.
IPI: Have you been to Myanmar before? What do you expect as you prepare to travel to Yangon next month for IPI’s 2015 World Congress?
Kaye:I have been to the country a couple of times in the past. I run a clinic at UC Irvine Law School and we’ve done projects over the last couple of years working with a group called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPP)…. So I’m really excited about coming on this trip, in part, because of my interest in Myanmar over the last couple of years has focused on what we thought was former political prisoners – the history of political prisoners – but we now know that media, journalist, bloggers, others are under stress in the country and so it’s no longer just a past tense, it’s also what’s happening today….
IPI: From your perspective as UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, what are the challenges that Myanmar’s media scene faces right now?
Kaye:There’s a significant and pretty vibrant independent media, but they [have], just like the entire country, substantial poverty and problems related to infrastructure. I think the media faces the same kind of thing and that certainly applies to independent media. I do think one of the challenges moving ahead is really trying to fill that capacity….
[B]eyond that there are problems, as in all countries, not just in developing countries, related to government control of media, concentration of media ownership – [things] I think that people will want to protect against – [and] training of journalists. The country was basically closed off for decades, and so even though there is this vibrant independent media scene, there’s a lot of training beyond that core that needs to happen….
I think the last challenge will be really encouraging the government to see journalists not as enemies and not as problems, but rather as fundamental to the building of democratic institutions. That’s clearly a challenge but the IPI Congress in Myanmar is really important for doing that so I think that’s, maybe, getting on the right track.
IPI: You announced that one of your priorities as special rapporteur will be protecting the rights of vulnerable groups. How can the international community support that effort in a country like Myanmar?
Kaye: I think the biggest problem right now related to vulnerable communities in Myanmar has to do with the Muslim community and the Rohingya in particular. A couple of things need to happen there: one is that the rhetoric and the policies from both the government and the opposition need to be much more open to the needs of the Rohingya and much more protective of them, given the attack on them that they’re facing from a variety of corners….
The second part of it is that there is serious incitement against Rohingya right now in the country. The government, on the one hand, might be thinking, ‘well in order to adhere to human rights norms we need to allow all sorts of speech’, which is certainly true. But that doesn’t apply to actual incitement to violence and we see some of that in Myanmar. The government really needs to be clear about what is the scope of legitimate speech, which is really broad. But it doesn’t extend to inciting violence against vulnerable communities….
IPI: You recently called for public comment on encryption and anonymity in digital communications. Why are these issues important to the right to share and receive information?
Kaye: [It’s] important because they’re not just as current technology – contemporary Internet use in our need or interest in anonymity and security online – but historically, literally from the beginning of communication itself, people have [always] found ways to communicate securely. It’s been crucial particularly for vulnerable groups, such as political opposition or religious minorities or others, to have ways to communicate with one another that are secure and that goes to the ability to develop opinions, to hold opinions and the ability to express themselves both privately and publically.
I think this is particularly the case for journalists... [W]hen they’re gathering information, they often need security and they need anonymity, and it’s regularly the case that they need to promise security and anonymity to their sources. So without encryption or the ability to be anonymous, it’s extremely difficult for journalists to their jobs and to get crucial information to the public for matters of public concern....
I think it’s important to see these also in the context of what governments both in the East and the West, or North and South, are trying to do. The advanced liberal democracies are pushing at least to hear proposals to get rid of encryption and to get rid of anonymity because of law enforcement and counterterrorism concerns. And it’s understandable. But those restrictions really need to be understood and framed within what’s acceptable under international and human rights law. That’s what we’re trying to do in part – make the narrative a little more realistic about the tradeoffs involved between law enforcement and counter-terrorism on the one hand and the rights of everybody else on the other, who are trying to express themselves, gather information, share information and so forth.
IPI: You also recently passed the six-month mark as U.N. Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. What has been most unexpected about the role so far? What do you anticipate will be your biggest challenges during your mandate?
Kaye: It kind of flew by. The first few months... I spent ramping up and getting a sense of how the [Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights] works....
I think the biggest challenges have to do with resources.... We get hundreds of communications every year from around the world from people who are seeking our assistance and attention. A lot of these communications present claims that are really valid for support and I think the biggest challenge is having the capacity to respond and to communicate with governments in a way that allows us to advance freedom of expression or the other [human rights] norms that are mandated by the Human Rights Council....
In a way it’s a surprise because Kofi Annan once called the special procedures the crown jewel of the U.N. human rights system and yet it’s incredibly under-resourced. I knew that, but when you see the amount of work on a day-to-day and long-term basis, you really realize that member states of the U.N. need to do a lot more to make the system effective and have the capacity to do everything that Human Rights Council wants it to do.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.
Please check out the IPI World Congress 2015 – On the Path to Free Media – Co-hosted by the International Press Institute and Mizzima – March 27-29, 2015 in Yangon, Myanmar