By Bernard Cheah
YANGON, Myanmar — On a blazing Sunday afternoon, on the outskirts of this country’s financial capital, thousands of people made their way to a football field, filling up the streets and almost putting the traffic to a standstill.
Mostly wearing red shirts that they paired with longyis, they eagerly waited for the arrival of the National League of Democracy’s (NLD) Aung San Suu Kyi, who was making this one of her last stops before the country went to the November 8 polls. As the afternoon wore on, the heat became more intense, and made even worse by the ever-growing crowd made up of men, women, and children in all shapes and sizes and age.
Babies in their mothers’ arms were squeezed between grandmothers and teenaged boys. Brawny men with bulging biceps were cheek by jowl with cane-wielding grandfathers who seemed ready to keel over any minute. Squirming toddlers tried to flee their parents, but there was no space for them to make their escape. Everyone would sit down on the damp, sandy field, but once in a while there would be a push from behind, and row upon row of people would get up, move forward and sideward, and then plop down again. By the time Daw Suu Kyi appeared, many were drenched in sweat, and sand was covering feet and bottoms, as well as up many nostrils. But there was an enthusiastic roar once the crowd caught a glimpse of the slight NLD leader, the cheers dying down only when she began to speak.
“Let us join hands in this elections,” she said. “The development for the country is important and everyone is needed.”
“Without people’s will, the development of the country would not be sustainable,” Suu Kyi told the crowd, as she called them to fulfill their rights as citizens to vote.
Among her audience was 19-year-old Wyine Myat Noe Maung, who would vote for the first time in Myanmar’s 2015 elections, said to be the country’s first free polls in 25 years. There was no perspiration on the teenager’s brow and back, however, and her feet, bottom, and nostrils were sand-free. After all, she was at home in Yenkin Township several kilometres away, watching everything at the rally unfold on her iPhone.
“I would have loved to be there, but my mom advised me against attending it,” the third-year English Language student at Dagon University said. And while her iPhone’s screen sported a nasty crack, she said watching the rally on it was “just as good as being there”.
Facebook for news
In all probability, she was not the only one feeling one with Suu Kyi’s adoring throngs at the rally, even if they were actually somewhere else. These days, more and more Myanmar people are getting their news fix – including live coverage of events – via their smartphones, which have become rather ubiquitous here. It’s a trend that has not gone unnoticed among the Myanmar media, so much so that all the major publications now have an online presence.
“These days priority is for online, as competition from other publications is strong and stronger,” said Aye Mya Kyaw, senior editor of 7 Day Daily, which is among the more popular news sources on the Myanmar Net. “And with the elections closing in, we have to focus online, we have to upload the latest updates.”
7 Day began in 2002 as a weekly journal and established its Facebook page and website (www.7daydaily.com) in 2010. Two years later it started producing a daily newspaper as well, but nowadays taking care of its online content is occupying much of the staff’s time. That’s because aside from competition from other media outfits who are also online, the likes of 7 Day have to watch out as well for citizen journalists or even the garden-variety Facebook users who like to upload comments, pictures, or even videos of news events like the NLD rally on his or her own page.
This may not seem to be news in the Internet Age, where just about every media outfit everywhere has tried to go online, chasing an increasingly wired audience. In nearby Malaysia, for instance, at least a third of the country’s top 30 websites belong to news companies. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the major dailies maintain websites as well.
What may be peculiar to Myanmar is the way many of its people access news online. In this country, going online means logging on Facebook, which is now the main source of news and information for many Myanmar citizens.
Based on the figures presented by the New York-based social media agency We Are Social in its “Digital, Social and Mobile in APAC (Asia and Pacific) 2015 Report”, the social media (including Facebook) community in this country looks puny: seven percent of the population, or 3.64 million people. By contrast, Singapore has 91 percent of its population active on social media, Brunei 66 percent, and Malaysia 56 percent.
The same report, though, points out that the growth in the number of social media users in Myanmar over the past year is at an impressive 204 percent. (Interestingly, while Facebook is popular among the Myanmar population, the same cannot be said about micro-blogging site Twitter, which allows a limit of 140 characters. A Burmese character would require typing three to four Roman alphabet characters.)
The popularity of Facebook here can be attributed to the increase in smartphone use across the country, which in turn is due to the decreasing price of both the phones and the SIM card. In 2008, a simple SIM card would cost a walloping USD 2,000. By late 2013, that price had dropped to a measly two dollars. Meanwhile, the cheapest smartphone used to cost USD 100; today a Chinese Huawei smartphone can be had for as low as 7,500-kyat (just a little more than five U.S. dollars).
It has also helped that Myanmar’s telecommunications industry was, in the words of Myanmar ICT Development Organisation (MIDO) Director Htaike Htaike Aung, “liberated” with the entry of Norway’s Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo into the market in late 2013. Thus, she says that while Myanmar’s Internet penetration was reportedly less than one percent in 2013, it is now 35 percent, which translates to about 18 million of the country’s nearly 52 million people.
Htaike says the figure is based on the number of subscribers to Telenor, Ooredoo, and Myanma Posts and Telecommunications (MPT), as well as the Internet provider Redlink. She quips, “When there is a demand (for data connectivity), there is a supply for it.”
To go online – that is, use Facebook – a Myanmar smartphone user buys a data plan, which he or she usually turns on and off as needed to save on costs. If used judiciously, a 5,000-kyat (USD 3.84) plan could last over a week.
Myanmar’s Internet users would rather use a smartphone than a PC or a laptop because of the cost. A non-branded PC would normally have price tags starting from about USD250 (323,499 kyat) and a laptop USD300 (388,198-kyat). In addition to that, there is mobility in accessing Facebook on smartphone while on the go.
Online media’s relentless pace
For sure, media outfits like 7 Day – and the telecom firms, obviously — probably want every smartphone owner in Myanmar online all the time. For 7 Day’s Aye, one way to do that would be to have constantly fresh content. She also said that while they are careful in providing accurate and fair news in the Facebook posts, she and her editors try to their best to balance political news with general and entertainment news so as not to bore the readers.
Continuous updates during calamities, man-made and otherwise, or important events such as the elections (and even the campaign) are crucial as well. “For example,” said Aye, “during Suu Kyi’s press conference, we sent two reporters and a photographer to cover the event, and during the press conference, we try and upload as much as possible.”
“There were over 20 updates,” she said, “which included important points, short video clips, and pictures from the press conference.”
By comparison, she said that 7 Day’s print version had only two stories encompassing the points posted by its staff on Facebook.
Interviewed days before the polls, Aye said that come election day, their reporters would be “sent to the important constituencies, and they would inform us about the percentage of victory won by the parties in those areas”. But she said this method of updating “close to real time” is carried out only during special events such as elections.
According to Aye, while 7 Day’s reporters have been uploading breaking news and information on Facebook since the 2012 by-elections, they are still trying to get used to the process.
Handling the Facebook page with another editor and two moderators as part of 7 Day’s Digital Team, Aye said that infographics for news pieces are occasionally tailor-made for Facebook page, and later published in 7 Day’s newspaper.
She said that pictures and articles are published in both the print version and on Facebook. But she noted that the former has limited space while the latter allows for more pictures and stories.
“We could upload between 15 and 20 photographs from an event, where the print would only see one or two photos,” Aye said, adding that photo albums can be created on its Facebook page to present these pictures.
Making money — not
Aye and the rest of her team’s efforts have apparently not gone for naught. According to Aye, 7 Day’s Facebook page now averages 100,000 hits daily and has more than 4.5 million followers – “the biggest in the industry”. The Prague-based social media-statistics monitor Socialbakers also puts the 7 Days News Journal on top of its list of the five fastest growing news outlets in Myanmar in terms of Facebook fans, crediting it with 4.728 million. Eleven Media Group has 4.585 million fans, it says, while The Irrawaddy (Burmese version) has 3.224 million, VOA Burmese Fan Page 2.364 million, and DVB TV News 1.716 million.
But all those millions do not necessarily translate into revenues for the media firms if the fans just stay put on the Facebook pages. Surprisingly, however, turning those hits into profits doesn’t seem to have occurred to 7 Day – yet.
“There is no specific plan to gain revenue (from the likes and views) from the Facebook page,” said Aye. “But perhaps we will try to look for a plan in the near future.”
Aye said, though, that 7 Day is trying its best to look for advertisement avenues — from both local and foreign companies — to keep its website going.
At the same time, she hinted at a potential problem, pointing out, “With the increase of smartphones and Facebook users, where people can just read news online, it seems that the circulation (and sales) of weekly journals have been reduced.”
MIDO’s Htaike herself observed that in areas like Yangon and Mandalay, people would look for news via smartphones whenever print media are not available or accessible right away. The same may happen in the country’s ethnic areas once the data connectivity there improves, she said.
“For example,” said Htaike, “Telenor started its operations in Kayah State two months ago.” Kayah is the “most unconnected” region in Myanmar after the Chin State, she said.
Telenor also has plans to speak with other stakeholders from ethnic areas with armed groups sometime soon, according to Htaike.
Aye said that while news groups are not transparent on their current circulation numbers, it looked like “weekly journals are on a decline” based on the information from newspaper vendors.
“While there are those Burmese who still prefer to hold and read the newspapers, the young are engaged online through the smartphone,” she said.
“But in my opinion,” Aye said, “it will take time to see any shift in media consumption among the people here.”
She said 7 Day Daily plans to focus on both print and online news for the next five years.
New media for the young?
Her reading of the online-versus-print media “battle” may not be that off. MIDO co-founder Nay Myo Kyaw also sees a generational divide in the use of print and online media, which points to the viability of both for now.
A blogger turned politician who usually prefers to go by his online moniker Nay Phone Latt, Nay said that campaigning via social media is effective with the younger generation, especially those between 18 and 35 years old.
“Most of them use the social media… and campaign is effective through Facebook,” said Nay, who was then vying to represent Thinganyun Township in parliament.
Nay said he had been posting links to articles and uploading short posts, including voters’ rights and education, on his Facebook page. He also turned to Facebook to discuss the problems faced by Thingayun residents.
But he admitted that when engaging with the “older” residents, whom he defined as those who are 35 years old and above, the traditional door-to-door visits and distribution of pamphlets are vital.
“The older generation don’t really use the Internet, and they do not know the politics,” said Nay. Still, he expressed hope that perhaps in the next elections, Myanmar would have more social media users, including those past 40 years old. (Available demographics for Myanmar reveal that nearly half of the country’s current population are aged 24 years and below. Those who are 25 to 54 years make up 43.1 percent, or about 28 million.)
Yet Kamayut Media Executive Producer Nathan Maung is already questioning whether traditional print media would still be relevant in the near future.
“Imagine, if people in Myanmar were given free 3G and 4G connection in the highest peak in the country, and they are able to watch and read news from the mobile phones — would they return to buying newspapers?” he asked.
He cited the rise of online media in the United States and how Americans are opting to watch clips over YouTube than television to support his claim that online news is the way forward.
“People are moving — it is a ‘trend in the entire planet’,” he said.
A crowded print industry
Kamayut is exclusively online, specialising in short video news and features that it uploads on its website www.kamayutmedia.com. Nathan said the idea to run a website came as the print media industry in the country became saturated quickly after 2012.
Three years ago, the government implemented reforms on the media sector, relaxing regulations and censorship rules. Publications soon multiplied, including those put up by previously exiled outfits such as the Mizzima Media Group that had been based in India.
Several publications later found it hard to stay afloat after the fierce competition had them encountering financial difficulties. Among those that eventually folded up were Myanma Freedom Daily, Naing Gan This, Yangon Times, Myanmar Newsweek daily, The Emperor Daily and Mizzima’s daily newspaper (although its weekend business publication and online website continue operations).
Myanmar’s print media remains quite crowded nevertheless, with an estimated 30 daily newspapers and over 400 weeklies – both state and privately owned — operating throughout the country. Yet while the average newspaper here currently has a print run of 6,000 copies per day, it may well be that those being sold are nowhere near that amount.
As if to demonstrate just how much better online media is compared to print, Nathan described how, throughout the 2015 campaign period, his team planned to cover candidates from the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), NLD, and other parties on their respective campaign trails.
“We would get exclusive content by interviewing these candidates, and posting 10 or 15-minute video clips online,” Nathan said. He then predicted that a video clip would garner 3,000 hits or more per day.
But at least Nathan echoed Aye in saying that being online does not mean less emphasis on accuracy in reporting. Saying that his group strives for quality news, he stressed, “It is important to provide quality news with professional standards for the masses – to earn their trust and not to lie to the public.”
*) This article is produced for the 2015 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) fellowship program raining a theme “Covering the coverage of the 2015 elections in Myanmar.” Bernard Cheah is a Malaysian journalist working for the Sun Daily, Malaysia.