The army in Myanmar has shut down five media organizations since Feb. 1. Facing growing public opposition to a 30-day old coup, the generals in charge decided to end the broadcasts, shut down the presses, stop the reporting. They are also now flying surveillance drones, hacking in to cellphones and software. Universities and hospitals are under their control. Yes, they are also killing people. The Associated Press reports more than 200 killed so far.
The military dictators of Myanmar do not believe citizens have a right to speak freely. They do not believe citizens have a right to know. Before the coup, Myanmar was styled a “republic,” a “democracy,” though freedom has never been real there. The military, one way or another, has been in charge since the early 1960s. The country, also known as Burma, was controlled by the British, invaded and occupied by the Japanese and torn by primarily ethnic civil wars.
But, this is not a lesson in geo-politics. I am writing about Myanmar because it is an example of what happens when lawless or ignorant people with power attack the very thing that limits or constrains the exercise of that power.
You see, a democracy requires the consent of the governed. The people are able to grant or withhold that consent in our country because of our Civil Rights. These rights are spelled out in the Constitution. We point most proudly to the First Amendment. We do so because we know that as long as we have the right to speak, publish, gather in protest or support, worship or not, as we choose, and demand attention be paid to our grievances, democracy has a chance. Democracy is a very fragile thing.
In the Commonwealth we are enduring a frontal assault on your right to know. It comes from the Kentucky Legislature. They are chopping away at it surely and steadily. There is nothing slow about it. Thankfully, they’ve gone home for a while.
But some of their “work” now sits on the governor’s desk. HB 312 does a number of things with an end result of keeping documents and records YOU own secret. The legislature basically becomes its own watchdog with final say on open records requests. Whether you get to see what they are up to will be their call. No appeal to the Attorney General. No judicial review either. Oh, you can appeal to a committee of lawmakers. Not exactly reassuring is it? It’s certainly not reassuring to anyone who believes that public officials with nothing to hide don’t attack open records and open meetings law. They are among the most important tools we can all use to support the rights we exercise under the First Amendment.
The bill started out as a finance bill and was amended in to a rewrite of open records law instead. It was done quickly and without advance notice to anyone who might say, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The deadline to introduce new legislation had already passed. So practicing what has become institutionalized duplicity, legislators amended a bill already introduced. No matter that the original bill had nothing to do with open records.
Western Kentucky’s Rep. Chris Freeland and Sen. Danny Carroll have been at it, too. Their legislation would make release of a video like the one depicting the police killing of George Floyd virtually impossible in similar circumstances in Kentucky. HB 273 is also on the governor’s desk.
Carroll also trotted out his proposal regarding a privacy exception for “public officers,” a broadly defined group of officials and employees. Carroll is a former Paducah cop who tried something similar in 2019. This time around his SB 48, at first showing some signs of life, never got to a vote in the House. Not to worry though, he promises he’ll bring it back next time.
Meanwhile, we’ll continue to ponder why so many elected officials cannot seem to connect with the basic, fundamental and foundational democratic principles embodied in the First Amendment and state and local laws that demand they conduct the people’s business with transparency and openness. The Kentucky Open Government Coalition’s Amye Bensenhaver described, “Listening to agonizing floor debates of HB 312 that exposed many lawmakers’ basic misunderstanding of, and utter disdain for, the value of Kentucky’s open records laws as well as their willingness to misrepresent the current state of the law …”
There is an unpleasant irony the legislature completed this round of attack during “Sunshine Week,” when we celebrate openness and transparency in government. Bensenhaver characterized it this way: “We ‘celebrate’ with stubborn resistance, with redoubled commitment, and with the confidence that the public recognizes these cynical and self-serving legislative assaults on open government for what they are: a clear and unmistakable desire to engender fear and mistrust of our existing laws for the purpose of avoiding accountability, filtering out sunshine, and returning to darkness.”
The shadows are growing longer. Gov. Andy Beshear may choose to veto the harmful legislation but unless enough lawmakers are struck by the light of a democratic epiphany, any veto will be over-ridden. The best way to bring about that epiphany is to call your legislators and tell them to stop this. Tell them you are not willing to give up bits and pieces of your freedom to enable their cynical, smug satisfaction. While you’re at it call the governor, too. Tell him to veto the bills. Tell him it may be futile but you expect him to be the adult in the room and do the right thing.
Perry Boxx is the news director of WPSD Local 6. You can reach him at email@example.com.