Interview: The Current State of Myanmar Media

Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) talked with Ye Naing Moe, the director of Yangon Journalism School (YJS) about independent media and its struggles, and current development of the country’s media. He also mentioned risks that regional and ethnic journalists face in their day-to-day works.

YJS Director Ye Naing Moe (Photo by Nai Nai)

SEAPA: What are your media development indicators in Myanmar? What are the components required for genuine media development to take place?

YE: In terms of media development indicators, we have to talk on three basic issues. Firstly, the quality of journalism – that means whether we have enough capacity (to perform the role of watchdogs). That is one very important component of media development. Without having proper and quality journalism in the country, we cannot see a proper media development.

Second component is ‘market’. Can they survive in the market financially? How much do media outlets depend on donors or (external) fundings? Can private media survive in the long run? That’s a big question and a difficult issue we are tackling here. The third component is legal framework. Can journalists exercise their rights? We have a lot to talk about on legal issues, media law and broadcast media law. Those are the key areas when we are talking about media development.

SEAPA: What is the situation of media development in Myanmar?

YE: We are struggling in all the (above-mentioned) areas. We still have to do a lot on capacity building. Our news media industry is still in the early stage and very young. Our editors are generally aged between 20’s and early 30’s. So, we still have to do a lot. Of course, we have achieved a lot, too. We have organized several programs where many journalists took part. Another development is about market competition and sustainability. There are many daily newspapers and weekly journals that did not survive in the market. (It brings us to the question of whether) do we have a proper distribution system? Is there fair competition? If the government has its own newspapers and much advantage in the market, we can say it is not a fair market. Besides, the laws and regulations I mentioned above still need a lot of improvement, especially the broadcast sector. And, we haven’t seen any independent community radio in the nation.

SEAPA: What is your definition of independent media?

YE: It is difficult to define an independent media. First we have to talk about the ownership. Do owners and shareholders intervene in the newsrooms? Even in the (so called private media), some editors are decrying that they do not have independence. And the fact is that we also have broadcast media and some of the print media owned by the government. So we have to emphasize on editorial independence. Currently, I believe, some editors are independent, but not many. (Talking about independence) It is not just from the government or the private owners, but from the political activism as well.

SEAPA: How would you describe the landscape of media ownership in Myanmar?

YE: It is very difficult to map ‘who owns what’. Here in this country, media owners belongs to the back-room. The real owners talk in the back-room. We see a list of owners in some of the newspapers, but the actual owners can be other people. For instance, one group owns a major private TV channel as well as another daily paper.

SEAPA: Is it possible to get information about ownership?

YE: It is not impossible. Journalists can ask the questions, but they might not get the actual data and answers.

Ye Naing Moe

SEAPA: Moving to the ethnic media, what are the factors in sustaining and creating an enabling environment for itself?

YE: I would call it “regional and ethnic media” because not only there is ethnic media in the state, but also there are small local newspapers in different regions. Again, it’s very difficult for them to survive in the market. Their basic challenge is ‘distribution’; it is very difficult in area like Chin State as well as other regions and states. Another reason is that they do not get enough advertisement to survive financially. This is simply because there are no vibrant businesses in those area.

Another source of challenge is ‘local authorities/ governments’. In some area, they do not cooperate sufficiently with the local papers. In another areas, the local governments and the papers are working very well together.

The next issue is we have many print media because we are not allowed to have community radio. However, readers cannot always afford the papers. That shortens the commercial lifespan of local regional and ethnic papers or makes it difficult to sustain the operation. So, we need an environment where local papers can survive. The question will the government allow licenses for community radio (so that) people–whether literate or illiterate–can listen to the programs in their own local languages and don’t have to always rely on the print. So, that is one (healthy) environment that the government can create if they would really like to support the media.

Ye Naing Moe

SEAPA: Regarding the safety issues faced by journalists in the ethnic areas, do you think the new government is perceptive?

YE: Safety is the biggest threats for regional and ethnic journalists. They are pretty much working in an unsafe environment in terms of legal threats, risk of physical attacks and even threats to their lives especially in ethnic areas with on-going armed-conflicts. We still lack the mechanism to protect our journalists in ethnic areas especially along the border.

What the government should do is to encourage authorities from regional, state, district and down to the quarter levels, and law enforcement agencies to cooperate with journalists. If they do, regional and ethnic journalists will be a lot safer. For media education organizations, it will be good if they could provide safety training to the ethnic reporters, but that alone cannot protect our journalists.

The major challenge for the safety in ethnic areas and regional level is that many local governments see local journalists as trouble makers.

SEAPA: What is your comment on access to information ?

YE: (It is not just) the local government (which do not understand the concept of public access to information). Even local journalists themselves do not understand what their rights are. During my trips to different regions and ethnic states, I asked local journalists if they have read the new media law. Many replied saying they haven’t seen it yet. That’s worrisome. They must understand what are their rights and have to exercise those rights. But if they do not know their rights, they won’t use it and it means that the new media law cannot take effect. It become useless, if people use the law only when they want to file a case against journalists. That many journalists lack awareness about this law is a serious problem, I think.

Basic journalism class at YJS (Photo by Nai Nai)

SEAPA: Are you concerned regarding the increasing usage of article 66 (d) of the Telecommunication Law? (Context: On November 11, Eleven Media Group’s CEO and Chief Editor were arrested for publishing an editorial that alleged Yangon Chief Minister for receiving a watch worth over US$100,000.)

YE: I am not happy with how Article 66(d) is being used by people,( it can get out of hand) and hundreds of people will get sued everyday. Of course, journalists have to be responsible for the standards of their stories. We have to be responsible for the quality of the stories, words, and pictures that we published online or offline. But, I am not happy about using 66(d) to counter bad journalism. We need a better mechanism of check and balance the journalism and reporting quality.

SEAPA: If you were to ask the government to take action, what would be your call?

YE: They must have privatized the state owned media. As long as they keep running their media, there will be unfair market in the country. That is (the cause) killing the private and independent media. The democratic government has to realize this.

Ye Naing Moe is the founder and director of Yangon Journalism School (YJS). He has been a journalism trainer with Indochina Memorial Media Foundation (IMMF) since 2002. He studied at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism as a visiting scholar in 2006-07. Later in 2009, he founded Yangon Journalism School (YJS).

Yangon Journalism School (YJS) is first founded in 2009 as a mobile training unit in Yangon and Mandalay. Later, YJS has its own classroom in Yangon and Mandalay. YJS provides various courses on basic journalism, thematic and specialized reporting, training for editors, newsroom coaching, and election reporting. YJS is operating with 8 staffs in Yangon and Mandalay. So far, more than 500 journalists across the country were trained by YJS.

*The interview was conducted on November 10, 2016.

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