Media urged to strive for unity to work for greater freedom

Southeast Asian journalists share lessons learnt from their countries’ transitions to democracy as media reform unfolds in Burma.

[Original title: Burmese media urged to strive for unity to work for greater freedom]

jaf-articleJournalists and media advocates from the region urged the Burmese media to avoid getting trapped in power manipulation during the transitional period, but instead should stick to its role as a central platform to engage civil society in the making of democracy.

This view was echoed during the regional conference, Journalism Asia Forum 2013 themed “Media and Democracy in Transition”, organized by SEAPA and the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility (CMFR) in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Mai on February 15 and 16.

Melinda Quintos de Jesus, CMFR executive director said in her opening address that the only way to consolidate democracy was to strengthen the role of the media and their understanding of civil participation in the transition process. She spoke from the experience of the Philippines, which has the freest press and most vibrant civil society in the region but is still beset with impunity for killings of journalists and activists.

Endi Bayuni, senior editor of the Jakarta Post said media was a pillar of democracy, and not just a player in it. “The job of the media is to ensure that all powers during the transition are accountable”, said Endi. He emphasized that “it is important for the media to be on the side of the people, giving the voice to the voiceless such as ethnic minorities to enable them to take part in the change.”

The conference, inspired by recent changes in Burma’s media environment, takes stock of experiences of media in transitions to democracy in Cambodia, Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand. The event was to make recommendations on priority needs and tasks for the media in areas of broad reforms, media professionalism and ethics in the context of the burgeoning press freedom in the country. Only two years ago, Burma was one of the lowest ranking countries in terms of media freedom.

During the two-day discussion, participants highlighted challenges and opportunities facing the media in the democratization process of their own country, which includes the legal framework to support the media, media professionalism and ethics, and public participation and civil movement in support of media freedom.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak, director of the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS) at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University said, media freedom and democracy were correlated and there was no linearity in the democratization process. “From the experience of Thailand, the media had to go through a tough and challenging process, and there is not one linear easy path to democracy and freedom,” said Thitinan. He added that in moving from censorship to free press and free competition, the media still needed to build camaraderie among themselves and with civic groups to protect their freedom.

The Philippines’ example has shown that its legal framework complemented media efforts to strengthen democracy and freedom but weak law enforcement and absence of the rule of law could pose problem to the healthy growth of democracy and freedom, said Victoria Avena, a professor at the University of Philippines College of Law.

Wiratmo Probo, program director of the Indonesia Institute for the Study on the Free Flow of Information (ISAI) said in the first 15 years of Indonesia’s reform process, the focus of media advocacy was on the protection of journalists and media self-regulation. “However, we realize that our defense against criminal libel is weak,” he said.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Ou Virak said that 20 years on, the Cambodian civil society has not changed much from being donor-driven although the country has enjoyed a lot more of opening and freedom. “It’s chaotic but free,” Virak described the situation. “And now we badly need an organic, home grown movement to counterbalance state power. It seems that the government is trying to impose a professional legal framework to control the movement,” he added.

As for the media, Virak observed that government has “moved away from jailing journalists to using commercial and political pressure to influence media owners on what goes to print”.

Unlike changes in other ASEAN countries, Burma’s political and economic reforms was dictated from the top and highlighted by a series of moves to relax restrictions in the media environment. The speed in which the changes were taking place over the past year not only took ASEAN and Western countries by surprise but also caught the local media off guard, making them worried about its fluidity and uncertainty.

Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of Mizzima News which returned into the media business from exile last year described the government-directed reform process as “not transparent”. Soe Myint identified some of uncertainties in the media process, including questions about participation of the ethnic media, the direction of reform process, the draft media law, the availability of resources for private media, and the sustainability of the market in the medium and long terms.

“The next five years will be a crucial test whether private media can survive in terms of their capacity and market viability. For now the media has to learn the market and gauge the public reaction on what kinds of news and information they want,” he said.

Moreover, Soe Myint said the media and advocacy groups inside the country do not necessarily work together to consolidate their position to defend important issues.

Myo Min Htike, editor of Burmese-language weekly Venus News journal said the media reform was still far from complete since there remained many restrictive laws, including the 16-point guidelines on the list of taboo topics issued by government late last year. Avoiding these topics could prevent media access to information and discourage them from investigating crucial issues.

Myo Min said there was also a danger of using media space to incite violence, as in the case of Rakhine state in June 2012.

Concurring with those views, several regional participants suggested the Burmese media had to be well aware and constantly reflective of the changes in order to keep up with the trends.

Nan Paw Gay, the development officer of the ethnic-based media network Burmese News International said, preparing community and people in terms of political awareness was a key task. “The ethnic media can play a role to help the public better understand the peace process and what it means in the transitional period,” she said.

Debbie Stothard of ALTSEAN Burma said the Burmese media and the civil society should prepare for the institutional reform to combat impunity for the past and prevent it from recurring. “This is the main strategic challenge for Burma. Committed and aware journalists and activists are the key allies in this change, not so much the political players,” said Debbie.

Kavi Chongkittavorn, SEAPA chairman, warned that the media reform process might fail if the media lagged behind.  “The Burmese government uses the media systematically for its political and economic purpose to disseminate the information and moving towards change to engage those outside the media,” Kavi said. He added that the Burmese media needs a space that represented a unified voice on issues of importance to democracy and human rights, and learn how to raise domestic issue in the regional and international context.