Myanmar media outlets enter new era
Burgeoning press walks fine line due to state censorship
After more than a year of civilian rule in Myanmar, the country’s media has started to emerge from a climate of fear and suppression. But as the country’s media sector grows rapidly, there are still challenges facing the industry in this newly opened nation now embracing modern times.
“[The] Press Freedom Index’s ranking said that Myanmar climbed up to 144th place in 2015 compared with 174th five years earlier,” Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Press Council told The Nation in Yangon. “But we still have a long way to go.”
Still, Myanmar’s media has been liberated from “crazy government censorship”, a term Thiha Saw used to describe the then military government’s requirement that all newspaper content needed to be approved by the Ministry of Information. The extreme censorship lasted until media reform in August 2012 under the navigation of reformist ex-president Thein Sein.
With election dominance of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in 2015, the media has experienced a more friendly environment. There used to be only three state-owned newspapers in the country but after 2012, 16 dailies emerged and now hundreds of publications have sprouted around the country.
Also, private broadcasting organisations have stepped out of the shadow of production houses while online media is also progressing nicely. Telco Norwegian Telenor’s ads are seen everywhere, indicating people’s strong engagement with social media, particularly Facebook and Viber.
The media rise is hitched to the high level of political enthusiasm running through the veins of long-suppressed Myanmar people.
“Politics is my thing. I like to discuss it with my friends and follow up political news,” said 22-year-old tourism student Oak Gyi.
“Although active online, I also like to grab physical newspapers,” he told The Nation via Facebook chat. “I also prefer private newspapers over the state-owned [papers]. I think they have more variety of content and are more informative.”
Despite all the positives, private newspapers still find it hard to survive given all the competition.
Lut Latt Soe is chief editor at the People’s Age Journal, which was founded in 2010 by her father, ex-NLD member and journalist Maung Wunntha.
“My father was a well-known political commentator, to the point that the military sometimes could not turn his editorial down,” Lut Latt Soe said. “But his popularity alone did not do [enough]. In 2015, we had to shut our printing operation and turn to the online platform only. We can’t stand with insufficient advertisements.”
Other newspapers share Lut Latt Soe’s sentiments. Private newspapers are not alone in driving the competition in the industry. State-owned papers are still a factor, such as the Global New Light of Myanmar, whose free copies are even found at Yangon International Airport.
“The states newspapers often have large circulations of around 2 to 3 million copies,” explained Kyaw Swar Min, general secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Association. “Thus, they are able to attract more advertisements and can be sold at low costs.”
For local newspapers the opposite is true. They have smaller circulations, attract less advertisements and need to be sold at higher prices. “So many of them are finished,” Kyaw Swar Min said.
On the broadcasting front, self-exiled outlets still operate abroad. Outlets such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which has operated outside the country since 1992. Its headquarters is in Chiang Mai and its broadcasting is done in Oslo, Norway. But at least it now has an office in Yangon where it produces online content.
Although DVB, a non-profit organisation, is popular among Myanmar households for its exclusive contents, it is technically not allowed by the Myanmar government.
“That is why the DVB’s productions have to be done abroad,” Thiha Saw said. “The Broadcasting Law draft, if enacted, would also not likely grant a licence to some self-exiled outlets like the DVB and the Mizzima News.”
The law draft is one among a host of laws hindering the media’s development in this post-military and relatively freer era. For instance, Thiha Saw said, section 66(d) of Telecommunications Law is a defamation law that has been prominently used against online commentators, journalists and activists. On a number of occasions, Myanmar police have enforced it arbitrarily without taking cases to the courts.
In November last year, the law was used to jail two top figures from the Eleven Media Group landed in jail after the outlet published a report on alleged graft involving Yangon Chief Minister Phyo Min Thien. After two bail requests were denied, the Eleven Media Group decided to publish an apology for running the story.
Other restrictive laws include section 500 of the Myanmar Penal Code, which also concerns defamation, and can result in people being jailed for up to seven years, and the colonial-era Official Secret Act. That legislation lead to jail terms of 15 years for revelling what is regarded as governmental confidential information, Thiha Saw said.
“The latter law also exists in other ex-British colonies like India or Malaysia, but they are civil laws, meaning offenders are punished financially,” he said “But here in Myanmar, it’s criminal, meaning that [law] breakers have to go to jail.”
Amid these constraints, media organisations are trying their best to boost the reporting atmosphere. The Myanmar Press Council performs self-regulation by directly receiving complaints from media consumers. It has also established standard operating procedures to guide journalists, and has engaged lawyer networks to provide legal protection for journalist.