Reality check on media freedom gains

As the 2015 general election draws nearer, anxiety and anticipation for the country future is picking up momentum. Both the general populace and outsiders share the general belief that this coming election will determine the quality of spaces and the tone of long term social, political and economic change in Burma, Developments in the country’s media landscape ahead of this crucial political crossroad seemingly forecast the directions of the country’s transition. Frequent threats and defamation charges against journalists is reflective of the overall state of press freedom in 2013 and early 2014.

Undeniably, the country has greatly benefited from the moderately advances toward a free press environment, which is part and parcel of the country’s nascent changes initiated by the present government. Yet, there are looming signs of backsliding in press freedom.

At the various incidents of intercommunal violence throughout 2013, the government’s continuing grip on the press, especially in accessing more fields of coverage are rather aggressive. Ye Naing Moe, director of Yangon Journalism School expressed concern over the increasing number of legal and judicial action by the state against the press as the new method of silencing journalists and restricting press freedom.

“We have been under that terrible system for five decades and the system crippled our news industry”, he said, adding that “of course, the government is still finding the ways to control the media but not in the same way [as in] the past. The genie has been let out and it is very difficult for them to tame it again.”

Flocking and applauding

Abolishing pre-publication censorship is one of the pivotal factors to build a thriving media scene and an active press culture. There are currently 26 daily newspapers publishing in Burma since the government allowed privately owned newspapers to publish daily on 1 April 2013. Still the diversity of the news scene is far from pluralism. Moreover, poor infrastructure and weak financial viability put newspaper publishers in a constant struggle to keep their dailies afloat, while state-run dailies take advantage of their well-established head start in printing and distribution on a nationwide scale.

Since licenses to publish daily papers were granted, the euphoria is has begun to melt away. The editor-in-chief of one of the popular papers describes the unlevel playing field where the private-run dailies are competing with the state-owned papers for survival. “All the daily newspapers except the pro-junta party newspapers are running at a loss. We are losing around 3 million kyat (3,000 USD) every day and many smaller papers are in the red too. Some can barely survive,” he said.

This situation indicates an acute need of sound business model with an effective media management strategy for independent media houses in the new Burma.

On 31 March this year, the Myanmar Daily Freedom suspended printing temporarily. The operation of the English language daily, with a circulation of about 10,000, was interrupted to reshape its operational and organizational structure. The founder of the paper, Thiha Saw said financial and human resources are also contributing factors for the decision to suspend his paper, as he hoped to put the paper back on newsstands within a couple of months.

“If we want to go for long term, we need to reorganize our current daily operations system. We have capacity challenges. We don’t have many well-trained journalists.” he added.

The relaxation on the freedom expression also generated a herd of young working journalists who are eager to reveal the truth to inform the public. Often described a rather ruthless, their passions and dedication push them to cross thresholds of the limited freedoms which could have landed them long-term jail sentences merely a few years back. Yet, the danger doesn’t stop there. Their unruly and nationalistic reports are frequently found and proven to inflame religious and racial tensions.

They need to be trained in the ethical reporting of ethnic conflict and national security. Their skills need to be polished and upgraded when reporting religious and racial issues.

To date, many international media organizations and foundations are making a beeline to provide capacity building programs, intended to fill the needs of Burma newsrooms and upgrade the professionalism of working journalists. At the same time, the Burma’s media outlets are required to have their own time frame to adjust and digest these new realities.

Flooding of international media trainers habitually cultivates the sense of aloofness amongst young media practitioners. In addition, their lack of cohesive visions further fragments the media landscape because what Burma needs the most right now is more than urban-oriented media culture.

There is no doubt that Burma requires the international assistance and goodwill in building greater media freedom. But there is little doubt that relapse and repentance could be possible if disparity reigns among beneficiaries, especially ethnic media outlets in the frontier areas.

In conjunction with easing general restrictions on the media, the present government also lifted restrictions on publishing ethnic-language newspapers in December 2012. Subsequently, four monthly and bi-weekly ethnic-language journals are publishing in the Chin, Mon, Karen and Kaya States. Prior to this significant development, these media outlets and other ethnic news agencies were printed abroad to circumvent the previous curbs by government. Burma’s ethnic states, home to around 40%of the entire population, are rich in natural resources and ethnic diversity. However, their local languages and cultural values had always been a subject of obliteration during the previous military regime.  The result is presently reaching to the point of a diminished appreciation and readership of ethnic languages. The newly established news room of the Independent Mon News Agency is a testament to this reality. Relocating from Thailand to the Mon State capital of Moulmein in April 2013, this monthly Mon-language paper has a circulation of just 3,000 copies at present. Readership numbers hardly match the agency’s expectation. Nai Kasauh Mon, editor-in-chief of the agency said that only about 20 percent of the Mon population can read Mon script.

“So we can only sell our newspapers in some places in Mon State where Mon National Schools are present,” he added.

Free and responsible press?

The 2014 World Press Freedom Index slotted Burma at 145th out of 180 countries. The current index has jumped six notches from the previous year’s rank, and is now ahead of some fellow ASEAN’s countries.

The present media-scape may seem as free as the aforementioned index has merited. In reality, the media is hardly coming to terms in terms of either social or ethical responsible norms. This fact is proved by the coverage on the 2013’s series of racial riots and religious conflicts which broke out in different parts of the country, also tainting the progress of Thein Sein’s government reforms.

Following the 2012’s communal riots in Rakhine State, fault line appeared between the local press and the returned exiled agencies. This shortcoming is not diminished yet when it comes to the coverage of anti-Muslim riots in 2013. The local press took a self-censorship stance as to avoid unnecessary backsliding in their own terms from the possibility of revocation of their publishing license revolted to the reduced readership numbers from the majority of readers who are urban-dwelling Buddhists. The line of impartiality is still difficult to draw when only one side can be held to account.

Media suppression 

In July 2013, Burmese government banned selling and distribution of The Time Magazine (international issue) which carried a cover story of Buddhist Monk U Wirathu, describing him as “The Face of Buddhist Terror”. As a leader of the radical 969 Buddhist movement, Wirathu is advocating social and economic exclusion to minority Muslim populations. His movement is also suspected of inspiring and inciting several anti-Muslims riots that ravaged the country, and leaving many local Muslim populations displaced and dead.

The president office justified its banning on the July 1 issue of Time magazine, and condemned the article for its provocative prose accusing it of undermining the country’s reform process and social harmony. Six months after the action against Time magazine, a visa request was denied to the very journalist who wrote the article to attend an East-West Center Media conference.

Moreover, various forms of restrictions have recently re-imposed on foreign journalist’s visa requests and process. Since the end of January 2014, the Ministry of Information has stop granting three- to six-month working visas to foreign journalists, including returning exiled journalists holding foreign passports. Instead, a journalist has to hustle in and out of the country every four weeks, or in some cases, at two-week intervals.

This renewed stranglehold on journalists by the Ministry of Information (MoI) arose after the sectarian conflicts in western Burma in late January. Some foreign and domestic media outlets have reported the violence against the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority in northern Rakhine State, as the government repeatedly denied the occurrence of the violence.

In the opening ceremony speech at the East-West Center International media conference in Rangoon, MoI deputy minister and presidential spokesman Ye Htut denied any link between new visa restraints and their efforts to prevent negative coverage.

In early February, four journalists and the chief executive of the Unity Weekly news journal were arrested for a story about an alleged secret chemical weapons facility in the Magwe Division, central Burma. Journalists were charged for violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act, and could face up to 14-year prison sentences. Instead of refuting the claims in the published story, the government went further to harshly confiscate from the newsstands all the copies of the Unity Journal issue containing the article.

Another step in the opposite direction media freedom is the jailing of Eleven Media group’s journalist in mid-December 2013. Khine Khine Aye Cho was sentenced in Loikaw, Kaya Sate to a three-month jail terms on charges of defamation, trespassing and using obscene language for her attempts to report on government corruption.

To denounce this unjust detention to the media worker, hundreds of Burmese journalists and activists again marched on the streets of Rangoon on 7 January 2014. Myint Kyaw, organizer of the protest and general secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network urged the authorities to reconsider the case, adding that “The ruling is not just. Criminal charges have been placed on a journalist for doing her job.

On the eve of connectivity and digitization

Meanwhile, opening a new era of telecommunications, the Burmese government granted mobile and telecommunication operating licenses to two international companies in June 2013. The Norway state-owned Telenor and Qatar’s Ooredoo now have 15 year-long permits to provide telehone and internet connectivity to about 60 million people in a country with barely any existing  communications infrastructure. Presently, Burma has less thanone percent of internet penetration and 2.3 percent of mobile communication connectivity.

Due to launch the services within nine months, this telecommunication leapfrog is widely expected to enhance communication rights of the people of Burma. Along with other press and media freedom relaxations, the expansion oftelecommunications could transform media consuming patterns in Burma as well from the still largely at one-way communication pattern of , traditional main stream media in the hands of the state. The positive expectations for more plural and inclusive media are also matched by awaited challenges and disturbances.Even with the limited accessibility to new media, it was still was effectively used as tool and platform to generate hate speech and to polarize the civic harmony during racial and religious unrest in the past years.

It is welcoming, indeed, this long-awaited connectivity, yet digital and social responsibility should not be overlooked, especially when everything in Burma is still subject to transaction.

Wobbly freedom

After nearly a year-long period of revision, two media bills–the journalist- drafted Press Law and MoI brainchild Printing and Publishing Registration Law–were ratified by a joint parliament session in early March 2014. Two weeks later, President Thein Sein signed both bills as laws, marking the official departure from the draconian 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act. These freshly minted parallel laws failed to draw expected praise from journalists and media advocates. While the Press Law bound journalists to abide by ethical standards, and copy and intellectual rights, as well as guarantee access to government documents, media workers in the country were apprehensive about clauses in the Printers and Publishers Registration Law, many of which retained the MoI’s absolute control over granting or revoking publishing licenses –that is still a lifeline of media houses in Burma.

In other words, the MoI can still set the boundaries of publishing content including broadly-phrased bans on reporting that could incite unrest, insult religion, disturb the rule of law and violate the Constitution.

These prohibitions completely destroy the spirits of building a free media, reflecting the blanket bans on critical and thorough reporting by the previous military junta and engendering self-censorship within the local media community.

Still at crossroads, Burma obviously needs further steps forward to reach a full-fledged free media environment, even as gradual expansions of media freedom within the country need to be acknowledged. In summary, gains in media freedom cannot be taken for granted as everything is still very fluid and the pitfalls exist at every turn.

Outlook

Economic and political interests for media and communication development in Burma is still in the lead up to the next general election in 2015.A reality check on the country’s media reveals serious resource shortcomings and the uneven playing fields that independent media houses have to face in competing with state-owned and the big business-backed media outlets.

This reality will test the country’s media community in the days ahead, to keep the environment free and fair as the outlets try to survive keep running.

Besides the increasing grips on mainstream media freedom, online platforms are being used by certain sectors to foment hate-speech and fuel social and racial unrest.

While this may sound like doomsday prediction, it is so much the better for the country to be proved wrong. As Burma will soon rise in world news headlines to see whether democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is elected as the country’s next President, journalists play a crucial role to see to it that the world is accurately informed of unfolding developments