The media – once termed the “Fourth Estate” in society by British parliamentarian and philosopher Edmund Burke – plays a vital role in shaping democracy and open public discourse. Its role is particularly important in new democracies, as societies develop both economically and politically, with the people given the opportunity to think critically and vote in representatives of their choosing. The role of an open and free media to investigate wrongdoing and report factually has never been so important globally. The role of the media in shaping public opinion and holding political leaders accountable for policies and progress adds further importance to a free, fair and – non-“fake news” media.
Media development in Myanmar is at an important stage. After 60 years of military dictatorship and total control and censorship of the press, Myanmar’s new democratic transition – which began in 2011 – has seen new media freedoms and media development, combined with a legacy of oppressive laws and regulations which are still used to target journalists and publications. A strong and vigilant media will play a vital role in Myanmar’s development as a nation and a truly open society over the years to come.
“Under the military government, it was difficult to get a license unless you had connections or money, and if you were linked to the National League for Democracy (NLD) or activist movements you could forget about,” says Thomas Kean, editor in chief at Frontier Myanmar. “We also had pre-publication censorship. But that was lifted in August 2012 and has led to a dramatic improvement in media freedom.”
Following this, the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, passed in 2014, were the first pieces of new legislation to enshrine media rights and responsibilities during the democratic transition, giving media greater rights and freedoms for the first time. The opening up of the media also encouraged regional ethnic media publications to set up alongside a return of exiled publishers from outside of Myanmar and visas granted to foreign journalists.
However, hope that freedom of speech laws and a truly free media would hasten with the landslide election of the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi in 2015 has been abated. In the latest 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Myanmar currently ranks 131 out of 180 countries. Although Myanmar has climbed the rankings, making huge strides over the past four years from when Myanmar sat at the very end of the table alongside the likes of North Korea, the press is still not truly free, and journalists still face arrests and fines.
Controversial freedom of speech laws, such as section 66(d) of the 2013 telecommunications law — where any person can press charges against an author over any content communicated over the internet, telephone, radio or television — still hamper the freedom of the press and freedom of communication on internet sites such as Facebook. One of the most famous incidences of this law being used was when a Facebook user was charged with insulting the head of the military and the army after comparing Myanmar’s new light green military uniform to that of Aung Suu Kyi’s green longyi.
Free speech advocacy organization PEN states that at least 80 cases using 66(d) have been filed since the law passed and 73 of those cases have taken place since the NLD, and Aung San Suu Kyi came to power. The Unlawful Associations Act section 17(1) is also still on the statute books and prevents journalists from gathering to cover events. One of the most recent crackdowns on the media was when the military arrested journalists in Shan state after covering a drug-burning event by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group.
Beyond this, some investigative journalists have mysteriously been killed or disappeared in remote regions and in controversial circumstances. This shows that although Myanmar has moved forward, repression continues.
Although there are multiple challenges that the media and those working in the media face, incremental positive changes are slowly taking place. The NLD led government has been working to reform the 66(d) clause, making it mandatory for third parties to get permission from any offended individual before pressing charges — a key step against the rampant misuse of the act. Those accused under the act now also have the right to apply for bail, so can avoid prison time before cases go to trial. This was not the case before when those accused were often arrested and imprisoned. Despite this, the main section of 66(d) still states that those who “extort, defame, disturb or intimidate” will face charges under the bill. It is often used to charge and sue media as well as online critics.
“The telecommunications law is still a main concern,” states Kean. “In Myanmar, freedom of expression is still conditional on not rocking the boat too much – it’s not a guaranteed right.”
The ambiguity of the law has in some ways made it worse for journalists operating in the country as it is unclear what “defamation” means. For this reason, journalists, activists and online commentators cannot be certain what subjects and issues may be “defamatory” as there is no clearly defined guideline. This is particularly true for journalists covering political issues and sensitive subjects.
Most recently, six journalists faced imprisonment for their work, mainly due to critical coverage which was then used against them using section 66(d). In a positive development, the military dropped the charges. Again, this shows the delicate push-pull of media rights progression in Myanmar. The fact that the charges were dropped is a positive sign. The fact that they were charged in the first place shows the challenge that the media still face.
For Chris Peken, an adviser at the Myanmar Journalism Institute, this plays directly into where the media currently find themselves in Myanmar. For Peken the environment for journalists and media publications is best summed up as “two steps forward, one step back” but is undeniably positive.
“An example of positive change would be that the government has just issued five licenses for media to provide content to the government owned state TV broadcasters. Another would be the advent of pilot programs for community radio stations. These pilot programs, along with proposed changes to the broadcasting laws, would make community media the third media tier (with public and commercial broadcasters), this would have been unthinkable a few years ago,” said Peken.
These positive changes and encouraging signs have been tested. The BBC recently pulled out of a contract to provide Burmese TV content citing government “censorship” of its broadcasts on the Rohingya crisis. This case, like the recent release of the six journalists, is indicative of the two steps forward, one step back environment in which the media operates. In many ways, Myanmar media is still testing the waters, and some issues continue to be off-limits.
The Next Generation
For Myanmar’s media to develop further, more regulatory reforms will be needed, but also a focus on developing and nurturing the next generation of multimedia, online-ready, journalists. Around four to five thousand journalists work in Myanmar – the vast majority without any formal training. For Peken it is this “ground up approach to training” which is of most significance to help build-up capacity in the media.
“As journalists, there is a need to create a culture of questioning and analysis — a culture of journalism. These critical thinking skills are the basis of journalism, be it TV, radio, print or online. In many developed countries, this is a four-year journalism course, but we don’t have that luxury of time here. Myanmar Journalism Institute provides a full-time one-year intensive course, with the best local and international trainers, and specialist shorter courses for working journalists. It is hands on, and it is working at the grassroots to create skills and to help foster this culture,” says Peken.
The Importance of Social Media
While in other countries, newspaper circulation is falling, in Myanmar people still read newspapers in large numbers. According to a UN report, a third of households did not have access to any information or communication device – meaning that radio, TV and the printed word is still vital for reaching these areas. While there is a lot of talk about the importance of digital mobile communication, traditional means of communication, such as newspapers, radio and TV are still of vital importance in Myanmar, but this is gradually changing.
As elsewhere, there has been a push toward digital platforms in Myanmar. The huge uptick in usage of social media platforms like Facebook has been driven by large-scale investments made in telecommunications technology infrastructure which has increased mobile and internet penetration vastly. Myanmar now has at least 33 million mobile users according to recent surveys, which is around 50 percent of the population, and smartphone use is at around 80 percent of those 33 million users. This shows that digital does have an important role to play in the country’s mediascape.
A recent public opinion poll conducted by IRI demonstrates the huge influence of Facebook in Myanmar, especially in how the country’s people access news. Many who have access to the internet in Myanmar are using Facebook as a news source. Further, the survey found that the majority frequently saw posts about ethnic or religious conflict on Facebook – raising further concern about the prevalence of “fake news” stories online. Facebook, as is the case globally, is becoming more and more important as an aggregator and arbiter of news in Myanmar.
U Thiha Saw, secretary at the Myanmar Press Council, says that social media and access to online information is changing Myanmar rapidly; a lack of ability to establish what is genuine and not genuine news poses a real threat and a challenge to the media.
“With social media, everybody becomes both consumer and producer at the same time. Fake news is now coming from all sides,” says Saw.
The next challenge for media in Myanmar then is producing Facebook-ready content that can rival fake stories which often gain traction.
Despite the challenges that the media face, journalists, and media publications continue to battle on, many testing the limits of how far and what topics they can cover – and sometimes paying a heavy price for doing so. However, despite the setbacks, overall the development of the media in Myanmar is positive, and it is hoped that over time regulations will loosen further. Media development in Myanmar has come a long way since junta rule – one of the primary examples being the sheer number of publications now working in Myanmar and the gradual improvement in conditions. The continued liberalization of the media – with radio, TV, and print all seeing greater freedoms – is a testament to the progress made. The key test now will be whether Myanmar can continue to move forward or will fall back.
Beyond regulations, institutionally Myanmar also needs to improve in access to information. “Transparency and access to information are key,” says Kean. “Many in government just don’t see the need to talk to the media, and this needs to change for us to continue to move forward.”
This may soon change. The Myanmar Press Council is currently working with the government to draft a “right to information law” which will function much like a freedom of information law in other countries. Besides this, and to make it easier for media to gain access and information from the government, the press council is also working with the government to encourage the establishment of “public relations departments” in each ministry – which would serve journalists with information and further government access.
“Today the public themselves are pushing for reform. There has also been a renewed realization in the government of the important role that local independent media have to play,” added Saw.
Myanmar then has and is making huge progress, but regulatory pressures and institutional barriers continue to hamper media development and freedom. Many will now be watching to see whether reform continues or stalls.
Edward Parker is a contributor to The Diplomat, based in Southeast Asia.