Myanmar has made impressive strides toward freedom in the media industry in the past three years, moving from a tightly government-controlled environment to one of the freest media industries in Southeast Asia regional bloc.
According to the United State-based watchdog group Freedom House, Myanmar saw a modest improvement in its media freedom last year, bucking the global trend as press freedom hit its lowest level in nearly two decades.
Myanmar’s score improved from 70 to 72 in the annual press freedom report and it landed Myanmar in 159th place out of 197 countries across the world, but still puts Myanmar in a category of countries described as “not free “while only two countries in ASEAN region – the Philippines and Indonesia – were ranked as “partially free”, in 87th and 98th places with scores of 44 and 49 respectively.
The report attributed Myanmar’s rise largely to the government’s decision to allow private daily newspapers to be printed and distributed from April 2013, ending a five-decade ban imposed by former military strongman General Ne Win.
Western-based media freedom monitoring organizations had expressed astonishment about these developments in Myanmar. However, recent cases indicate that there could be a serious roll-back on this newly found liberty in Myanmar.
In April, several newspapers in Myanmar printed black front pages to protest the jailing of a journalist pursuing a story about education.
Many of the blacked-out pages included a protest message against the sentencing of a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who was handed a one-year jail term for “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant on duty” as he attempted to interview an education department official on the subject of a Japanese-funded scholarship program.
The jail term prompted an outcry from international rights groups and Myanmar newspapers who were united in saying that such imprisonments trampled on their right to report the news.
“While press freedom conditions in Myanmar have generally improved, some elements in government, including the Ministry of Information, are uncomfortable with the more open reporting” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
Using non-media laws
However Thiha Saw, member of the government appointed Interim Press Council (IPC), believes that laws otherwise unrelated to the press are now being used to silence journalists.
“We noticed that government are not using the media law to arrest and charge journalists” said Thiha Saw,
Myanmar president Thein Sein in mid- March signed two new laws – the Media Law and the Printers and Publishers Enterprise Law – that replaced the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act. The 1962 law carried heavy prison sentences for vague crimes such as “disrespecting the state”.
“The authorities are still using other existing laws such as civil laws and criminal codes – in addition to the established media and publishing laws – to threaten or punish or deter journalists from doing their work” said Kyaw Min Swe, secretary of the IPC.
In February, four reporters and the chief executive of local weekly the Unity Journal were also arrested and charged under the 1923 State Secrets Act for a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar.
Also in December last year, a local daily newspaper reporter from Daily Eleven was ordered to serve three months in prison for trespassing, criminal defamation, and using obscene language.
“The law they use most often is defamation, against a person, or perhaps an office. We’re also seeing authorities increasingly using the charge of trespassing for this same purpose,” Kyaw Min Swe said.
Myanmar’s Press Council on World Press Freedom Day at May 3 issued a media ethics code, providing a framework of responsibility and accountability adopted by a free press community.
“A system of self-regulation is needed here because we don’t want the government to impose,” he pointed out, adding that some journals in Myanmar merely criticizing persons, especially former military generals and cronies.
“Some media are trying to get public attention using personal attacks and these may worry the authorities on the press freedom” he said.
Myanmar journalists are very eager to inform the public and push their new freedom to its limits. But to do so, they must improve their skills and professionalism in reporting, especially on sensitive issues such as national security and ethnic conflict, Kyaw Min Swe said.
There still remain challenges that limit freedom of expression in Myanmar. The legal framework is largely unchanged during the transition through a number of laws that restrict and impact upon freedom of expression namely: the State Protection Act, the Unlawful Association Act, the Electronic Transactions Act, the Television and Video Law, the Computer Science and Development Law, and significant sections of the penal code.
“The government can arrest you if they want to for merely possessing and email address”said well-known blogger and former political prisoner Nay Phone Latt who had been sentenced to more than 20 years in prison under the Electronic Transactions Act, but released in 2012 under the president’s general amnesty.
Another challenge for press freedom in Myanmar is media ownership. Most of Myanmar press are owned by those who are linked to the former military officials. And as the media landscape changing, many private media houses find it difficult to stand alone and have to cooperate with the those called crony media company.
“We must change our family-type businesses to corporate businesses–and this may also impact on the press freedom” said Thiha Saw.
Myanmar, as a current ASEAN chair, needs to use its media freedom as showcase to the region as no other member countries has introduced such a sudden liberalization in the area of media in decades.
“I urge the government to give more space to media and this will help Myanmar’s transition succeed” he said.
[Kyaw Ye Lynn, Desk Editor of Popular Myanmar News, went to Indonesia for two weeks as part of SEAPA’s Journalist Exchange Program. He spent two weeks with the Jakarta Post, which asked him to write this story.]