[Myanmar] Setbacks to media freedom and development

World Press Freedom Day (WPFD) is an aide-mémoire that in dozens of countries, newspapers are suppressed, charged, and closed down, while journalists and editors are harassed, attacked, detained, and sometimes assassinated. Moreover, correspondents who have lost their lives for their journalistic profession were also honored.

The global theme of the WPFD 2018 is “Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law.” It covers issues as media and the transparency of the political process, the independence and media literacy of the judicial system, and the accountability of state institutions towards the public. The day also examines contemporary challenges of safeguarding press freedom online. Every year, May 3rd highlights the basic principles of press freedom evaluating the state of the media around the world, defending it from attacks, and maintaining its independence.

WPFD also draws attention to freedom of expression — speech, writing, publishing and distribution of news among journalists, citizens of all nations and peoples of different classes living around the world.

WPFD is an important day for Burma or Myanmar focusing on press freedom and the safety of journalists under the protection of justice and the rule of law.

Under military dictatorship for six decades, the country has lost democratic institutions and practices since the 1962 coup d’état. As a result – the country did not accustom to the freedom to hold opinion without interference, the right to seek and receive information and ideas of all kinds, and freedom to impart information and ideas of all kinds regardless of frontiers, through any media of his/her choice. After the 2010 general elections, Myanmar has started approving fundamental principles of press freedom.


General landscape of Myanmar media

Even with the National League for Democracy (NLD) at the helm, there is not much generous sign of media reform. The appointment of an experienced veteran journalist as a deputy minister for MOI has yet to make a difference.

Despite significant progress from 2011 to 2014, the media freedom situation continues to be unpromising in Myanmar, which is ranked 137th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Border’s (RSF) 2018 World Press Freedom Index. Freedom House has concluded that the country is “not free” measuring its state of press freedom and the internet in 2017. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) ranked Myanmar ninth in the 10 most censored countries in 2015.

The general public had been subjected to the self-censorship policy run by media-owners through their loyal editors. A free press is closely interconnected to access to information as well as the protection of human rights. However, the effort in this regard is disheartening in Myanmar. The safety of media and journalists has become unsatisfactory with the weakening of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country.


Journalist safety question

Undergoing a strategic peace process, the 21st Century Penglong Conference or the Union Peace Conference has started its meetings – first round on 31 August 2016 and the second round on 25 May 2017. Covering peace and conflict news, journalists are expected to travel and report stories from the battle zones where their safety are uncertain. In the same way, situations of journalists are more vulnerable because of political volatility. Over the past year, journalists have been subjected to threats and violence from religious extremists. Those that write about national security, anti-corruption, religion, conflict, land rights, drug trafficking, illegal logging and wood smuggling among other subjects, are at certain risk.

For example, local journalists lack self-confidence in reporting these sensitive issues. The country’s first elected civilian government in several decades has revealed itself similar to its military predecessors sentencing harsh punishment toward journalists who especially investigate corruption, conflict, and military security.

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Esther Htusan is a native Myanmar but she’s no longer safe to cover her stories from inside. She escaped the country last year after being threatened for her investigative reporting on a number of sensitive topics. This showed that Myanmar’s journalists are under repression as security measures used to limit the press under military rule are restored under the current democratic government as stated by a number of journalists, who cover peace and conflict stories. (“Threats, arrests, and access denied as Myanmar backtracks on press freedom” )

In another case, three journalists were arrested by the military on 26 June 2017 after observing an activity (burning of drugs) by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) in northeastern Shan State. Two reporters – Aye Nai, 53, and Pyae Phone Naing, 24 – who work for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and Lawi Weng, 38 – who reports for The Irrawaddy news were handed to the police and charged under the colonial ruling Unlawful Associations Act. The charge was for their alleged dealings with the TNLA, an ethnic armed group which is still fighting with the government’s army. If found guilty, they face up to three years in prison. (“Press freedom ‘under threat’ in new Myanmar)

Tha Lun Zaung Htet, co-founder of the Protection Committee for Myanmar Journalists, a collective of more than 100 media workers, says being a journalist in Myanmar “is becoming very dangerous.” Formed in 2012, the group has become something of a de facto industry front, organizing protests to repeal repressive legislation and free jailed colleagues. (“‘It’s Dangerous to Write the Truth.’ Journalists Fear the End of Press Freedom in Myanmar)

The latest controversial arrest happened in December 2017. A court in Myanmar declined to grant bail to two Reuters journalists – Wa Lone, 31, and Kyaw Soe Oo, 27 – accused of violating the country’s Official Secrets Act. Their defense lawyer said information in documents at the center of the case was publicly available. Lawyer Than Zaw Aung said that a police witness during court proceedings said that details in the documents found in the possession of the reporters when they were arrested had already been published in newspaper reports. The reporters were detained on 12 December 2017 after they had been invited to meet police officers over dinner in Yangon. They have told relatives that they were arrested almost immediately after being handed some documents at a restaurant by two officers they had not met before. (“Reuters reporters arrested under Myanmar Secrets Act denied bail)

British-Lebanese human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, wife of Hollywood A-lister George, announced on 29 March 2018 that she will represent the two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar in a case that has incensed global opinion. Clooney’s involvement will increase the global attention that has surrounded proceedings against the pair, who are being detained in a Yangon prison. (“Lawyer Clooney to defend Reuters journalists held in Myanmar)

In November 2017, a judge sentenced two foreign journalists, their interpreter, and their driver to two months in prison on charges of using a drone without official permission. The journalists, Mok Choy Lin, a Malaysian citizen, and Lau Hon Meng, a Singaporean citizen, were on assignment for TRT World, Turkey’s state broadcaster. (“Arrests of Reuters Reporters in Myanmar Add to Fears About Press Freedom)


Media Law and Press Council

The Media Law has been enacted since 2014 and the Myanmar Press Council is responsible for resolving misunderstanding between media personnel and respective opponents.

Although there is a Media Law, most cases of journalists were taken action under the Penal Code, such as defamation or trespassing. Up to now, courts are still under the control of the administration. Corruption is still an issue in the judiciary. Violation of defamation under Section 500 of the Penal Code could result to a fine, but journalists receive imprisonment.

Another law that is used against journalists is Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, which was passed in 2013. Section 66(d) allows the enforcement of criminal penalties of up to three years in prison for “extortion of any person, coercion, unlawful restrictions, defamation, interfering, undue influence, or intimidation using a telecommunications network.”

According to the 2013 Telecommunications Research Group, which has been documenting prosecutions under 66(d), at least 73 people are known to have been charged with online defamation under the law.

The Coalition on the Movement for Telecommunication Law Reform and Section 66(d) Abolition was founded in January 2017. Many people have been charged under the article, and it is not enough to amend it without regard to public opinion, said Maung Saung Kha who is active in the campaign. The coalition sent its research and suggestions on the law to government officials on 22 June 2017, including the Ministry of Transportation and Telecommunications and the Amyotha Hluttaw Bill Committee. (“22 groups launch online drive against Section 66(d))

Any citizen could use Section 66(d) to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the comments. The use of the law for alleged defamation has been controversial because of its harsh penalties and also because suspects (accused) are normally refused bail. It is often used to jail journalists and political activists during prolonged trials.

On 7 March 2017, Ko Swe Win was accused for insulting nationalist monk U Wirathu. Ko Swe Win, a human rights activist and editor in chief of the news agency Myanmar Now, received the Schuman Award for his merits in uncovering human rights violations through his investigative journalism, and determined fight for freedom of expression in Myanmar. (“Myanmar activists receive EU’s 2018 Schuman Award for Human Rights)

The role of the Myanmar Press Council is to bring about an agreement or reconciliation in case of media disputes. The Press Council said it could not address cases if they are brought up to the courts.

Representatives of journalists’ associations Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN), Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU), Burma News International (BNI), and Myanmar Media Lawyers Network released a joint statement dated 13 November 2016 calling on the Press Council to play its role as negotiator in cases against journalists. The Press Council often suggests that media stakeholders and authorities use the existing Media Law to resolve disagreements.


Self-censorship at large

Media outlets in Myanmar do not need to undergo a censorship office unlike before. But they still have to take extra care when publishing sensitive issues as the military has in its disposal existing laws that bar freedom of expression.

All news media outlets are used to self-censorship avoiding confrontation with the government and military. Majority of daily newspapers, radio and television stations are under the supervision of the State. Whatever private journals, magazines, FM radios and television channels were there, they have to work inflexibly under the regulations set by their media owners and editors.

There is a concern among journalists’ organizations including ethnic media outlets about the media monopoly pattern.

The Ministry of Information (MOI) is working on a plan to rebuild the state-run newspapers – New Light of Myanmar, The Mirror, and MRTV – into a model of public service media using public funding for public interest reporting with editorial independence.

The previous draft law has been criticized for making public service newspapers that could strengthen the government’s media industry. Private-owned newspapers could be diminished while government’s public service media runs competently with public funding.


Media’s role in peacebuilding

According to the preliminary results of a nationwide survey carried out by Free Expression Myanmar (FEM) in 2017, 78 percent of journalists believe that they have low or very low levels of freedom to report in conflict areas. A total of 170 journalists from across the country responded to the survey.

The survey added that 43 percent of the information used by journalists when reporting about conflict comes from the government (including the military), while 55 percent of journalists believe that violence against journalists has increased since last year, and 37 percent said it is the same. The survey also showed that 73 percent of journalists believe that the government does little or very little to stop violence against journalists. (“Media freedom declining in Myanmar: experts, journalists)


Some bright spots

One strong point is the Sixth Myanmar Media Development Conference (MMDC), which was successfully convened from 7 to 8 December 2017. One conspicuous discussion titled was “Safety of journalists and the issue of impunity on crimes against journalists” – which took place on the morning session of day one in the conference. In the afternoon session of the same day, another interesting panel was the “Media legislation and freedom of expression online and offline.”

The annual MMDC has served as an opportunity for media stakeholders of Myanmar to take part in dialogue with government representatives on topics linked to the progress of the media sector. It is a rare chance for those who work in the media industry to speak frankly with officials responsible for media policy reform. The 2017 conference is organized by the Myanmar Press Council and the members of Media Development Thematic Working Group in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), International Media Support-Fojo Media Institute (IMS-Fojo), DW Akademie, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and Ministry of Information (MOI) as well as with the support of the embassies of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany.

Moreover, the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN), Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU), Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), and the ethnic media network Burma News International (BNI) also took part supporting the Sixth MMDC. The involvement of these media groups were proof of the improvement in the media sector of Myanmar since 2012.

Through such kind of media conferences and forums, the “ethnic media” have made its way into participating in more spaces.The speedy development in the digital and data sector provides new media platforms and introduces new media tools to ethnic journalists. The MOI recognizes the role of the ethnic media and its effective participation in the media industry. As ethnic media outlets represent the voice of the voiceless, its role becomes significant regarding the country’s Union Peace Conference targeting national reconciliation.

Yet, ethnic media outlets are struggling with reliability and sustainability working to have independent editorial policies in the context of Myanmar’s media laws and environment. It would be inconsistent for the new government to jail journalists while “promoting freedom of expression.” As oppressive laws still remain, it is crucial to call for an unbiased media playing field. Additionally, conditions on the ground for journalists working in the country’s conflict zones continue to be challenging.

It is essential to build an equal playing ground in terms of independent media development. Positive measures to ensure private media development need to be taken from the point of view of building the capacity of the ethnic media and the financial sustainability of media houses as well as strengthening the management and professional capacities of the media sector.

A competitive media and broadcasting environment comprising private, public, and community broadcasters should be one of the long-term goals. 

The government’s resolution allowing five new private independent television channels in 2017 as MRTV content provider is a step forward even though there is still limited space for ethnic media outlets.

On 30 March 2018, new president, H.E. U Win Myint was sworn in and he said of the role of the media: “I wish to urge the media sector, which serve as the ears and eyes of the public, to understand the seriousness of their duties and to hold in high regard the public sector that they serve.”



Despite the fact that there is a long way to go in terms of media reform in Myanmar, here are some discussion points for the next steps:

  • It’s essential to abolish undemocratic laws against media freedom and freedom of expression in Myanmar.
  • It’s necessary to launch policy dialogue and consultation amongst stakeholders (especially union government and regional governments, private media including ethnic media, media-related CSOs, members of parliaments and international media support organizations).
  • It’s important to strengthen communal associations such as journalists unions, press councils, ethnic media networks, etc.
  • It’s obligatory to encourage capacity building for media interested associations on media literacy, the role of fourth estate, and press freedom, etc.
  • It’s compulsory to build good networking system among government official, members of parliament, civil society, community leaders, and media workers in order to exchange information for public interest.
  • It’s compulsory to endorse the right to information law (RTI Act), which must include strong provisions that guarantee access to information together with making all information accessible via the internet.  
  • It is essential to strengthen the digital and broadcast sector for media development in line with the information and technology era.

The Myanmar media community and all stakeholders have to work on a media policy and reform emphasizing free expression and press freedom, safety of journalists, media literacy, and accountability of state institutions towards development and democracy.

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