[Myanmar] Media in transition and conflict: Challenges for truth and reconciliation

World Press Freedom Day 2017 highlights the protection of journalists. Every year on May 3rd, the commemoration highlights the basic principles of the free press in order to evaluate press freedom around the world and defend the independent media from attacks. The date is a reminder that in dozens of countries, publications are censored, penalized, and shut 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 World Press Freedom Day 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. The World Press Freedom Day is an important day for Myanmar not only for press freedom but also for the right to information (RTI).

Under a military dictatorship for six decades, Burma or Myanmar has lost democratic institutions and practices since the 1962 coup d’état. As a result, the country did not accustom with the freedom to hold opinions 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, the country has started approving fundamental principles of press freedom.

Strong and weak points

One strong point is the 5th Myanmar Media Development Conference (MMDC), which was successfully convened on 7 – 8 November 2016. Remarkably, the conference was supported by the Myanmar Ministry of Information (MOI); United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); International Media Support; Deutsche Welle Akademie; United States Agency for International Development (USAID); BBC Media Action; Centre for Law and Democracy; FOJO Media Institute; Internews; United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); ARTICLE 19; FHI 360; as well as with the support of the embassies of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Germany.

Moreover, 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 5th MMDC and these media groups prove the improvement of the media sector that has been recognized since 2011.

Through such kind of media conferences and forums, the “ethnic media” situation is also getting some space. The speedy development in the digital/data sector provides new media platforms and also introduces new media tools to ethnic journalists. The MOI recognizes the role of 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 21 Century Peace Conference targeting national reconciliation.

However, ethnic media outlets have to struggle for survival, sustainability, and cost-effective proficiency while keeping up with independent editorial policy under doubtful media laws. It will be inconsistent for the new government that should be promoting freedom of expression to jail journalists. But oppressive laws still remain and it is crucial to call for an unbiased media playing field. In addition, circumstances on the ground for journalists working in the country’s conflict zones continue to be challenging.

Myanmar stood at ninth place in the most censored countries (2015) according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The Freedom House stated that Myanmar is included in the list of countries that have not enough press freedom. Although the winning party National League for Democracy (NLD) is at the helm, there is not much tangible indication of media reform, apart from supporting the Press Council in a new approach. Despite significant progress from 2011 to 2014, the media freedom situation continues to be upsetting in Burma, which is ranked 143rd out of 180 countries in Reporters Sans Frontières’ (RSF, Reporters Without Borders) 2016 World Press Freedom Index.

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 disappointing despite the growth of press freedom and freedom of expression in the country.

Safety of journalists

Although the country is undergoing a planned peace process, the safety of journalists who would travel and report stories from the battle zones is uncertain. In the same way, the situation of journalists is more vulnerable because of political instability. Additionally, over the past year, journalists have been subject to threats and violence from religious extremists. Those that write about national security, anti-corruption, religion, conflict, land rights, illegal logging and wood smuggling, among other subjects face a certain risk.

For example, journalist Tin Zaw Oo wrote a news article titled “Timber smuggled from illegal timber-mills in Thabeikkyin Township” for the Voice Daily News website. The news led to the local police’ arrest of smuggling rings. On 6 October 2016, a group of smugglers and local gangs visited Tin Zaw Oo’s house in Thabeikkying and threatened his life. Later, he reported the incident to the police but no protection was guaranteed. All six of his family members temporarily departed from their home in Thabeikkyin.

In another case, Eleven Media Group (EMG) reporter Soe Moe Tun was found dead on 13 December 2016 in Monywa, Sagaing Region, Myanmar. EMG’s bureau chief of Mandalay said that Soe Moe Tun was investigating a story on alleged illegal logging and wood smuggling at the time of his death, news reports said. He said Soe Moe Tun had previously reported on illegal wood smuggling in the region, reports said.

Media law has less power

Although there is a media law, most cases against journalists were under the penal code such as the defamation act or trespassing act. So far, courts are still under the control of the administration. Corruption is still at large in the judiciary. Defamation under Section 500 of the Penal Code can get away with a fine, but journalists received imprisonment. Media Law has been enacted since 2014 and the Myanmar Press Council is responsible for resolving misunderstandings between media personnel and respective opponents. Another threat towards journalists is the use of 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.”

EMG’s chief-executive-officer Dr. Than Htut Aung and editor-in-chief Wai Phyo were prosecuted over the editorial “A year after the Nov 8 polls”, which was written by Than Htut Aung in early November. On 9 November 2016, they were put on trial under Section 66(d) by the Yangon Regional Government and subsequently remanded in Insein Prison after a brief court appearance. Yangon courts have granted bail to Dr. Than Htut Aung and Wai Phyo. Both were granted Ks50 million (USD37,000) bail with the next court hearing due on January 13, according to EMG lawyer Kyi Myint. This is the first time that a ruling party’s senior official has made a court charge under the Section 66(d).

Any citizen can use Section 66(d) to sue for alleged online abuse, regardless of whether they were the subject of the comments. It carries a threat of imprisonment and suspects are normally refused bail. This is deeply controversial for alleged defamation, which is often used to jail journalists and political activists during prolonged trials.

The latest case related to Section 66(d) was on March 7. The lawsuit was against Myanmar Now chief correspondent Ko Swe Win, who was accused of insulting nationalist monk U Wirathu. According to the Telecommunication Research Team, there were 49 cases under Session 66(d) as of 13 January 2017.

An objection was filed with the Myanmar Press Council, which handles media disputes. But the Press Council said that it could not address the cases if those were brought to the courts. Representatives of journalists’ associations such as MJA, MJN, MJU, BNI, and Myanmar Media Lawyers Network released a joint statement on November 13 calling on the Press Council to play its role as a negotiator in the cases against journalists.

Self-censorship at large

Although media outlets in Myanmar no longer need to undergo the censorship office, they have to take care when publishing sensitive issues as some military have drawn existing laws that bar the freedom of expression. All news media outlets are used to self-censorship methods avoiding confrontations with the government and military. Majority of daily newspapers, radio and television stations are under the supervision of the State. Private journals, magazines, FM radio and television channels work with the self-censorship regulations set by their media owners and editors.

Noteworthy after the start of democratic transition in 2010, most of the exiled media including ethnic media groups have moved into the country and become registered organizations. For instance, Mizzima, the Irrawaddy, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and BNI have been recognized as members of the media circle in Myanmar since 2012. BNI hosted four Ethnic Media Conferences gathering majority of the ethnic media, mainstream media, state-owned media, international media, community-based organizations, civil society organizations, resource persons, etc. BNI has provided a media platform for various ethnic media through a training workshop “Online Media for Peace, Cross Cultural Dialogue among Myanmar Ethnic Media Groups,” sponsored by UNESCO.

Moreover, BNI as an ethnic media coalition had the opportunity of watching the Myanmar elections in 2010 and 2015. BNI also plans to watch the by-elections in April 2017. In addition, BNI, together with the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), held the Parliamentary Monitoring Project “Strengthening Ethnic Voices in Myanmar.” BNI has good knowledge of monitoring the Myanmar peace process and produced four annual reference books called “Deciphering Myanmar’s Peace Process.”

However, there is a concern among journalists’ organizations including ethnic media outlets related to the media monopoly pattern. MOI is working on a plan to rebuild the state-run newspapers – New Light of Myanmar, The Mirror, and MRTV – into models of public service media using public funding for public interest reporting, but with editorial independence. The previous draft law has been criticized for potentially strengthening the government’s media industry rather than introducing a genuine public service media. Privately-owned newspapers could run the risk of competing directly with and losing against the government, publicly-funded media.

The role of the media in peacemaking

World Press Freedom Day 2017 focuses on why it is vital to strengthen free and quality journalism to enable the media to effectively contribute towards the achievement of sustainable growth. It especially explores the interrelationship of the freedom of expression, justice for all and the rule of law, peace, and inclusiveness.

The media play a central role in the conflict and crisis situations in Myanmar. Independent, objective, neutral media could help defuse tension, promote dialogue, and contain conflicts. Conversely, biased and untrue reporting could exacerbate violence. When misused for propaganda purposes, the media could contribute to inciting hatred and spreading rumours.

Moreover, for the duration of the armed conflict and disaster in Myanmar, the risks faced by journalists have significantly increased. An additional threat to peace and security, human rights, and justice is the spread of violent extremism caused by terrorist and extremist groups. These groups have used social media as tools to spread hate speech and prejudiced messages.

However, the role of the media may be more essential during the second round of the Union Peace Conference or 21st Century Panglong Summit this year. Citizens have to rely on the information reported by the media to learn about the various views and opinions from different ethnic armed groups and political parties. Without media freedom, knowing which of the sources are most reliable would be particularly more difficult.

So, it is very important that the freedom of expression and of the press must be guaranteed and protected as peace talks are held. Journalists and media workers should be able to do their jobs without limitations. Even more important, the right to know and access to information should be assured during the 21st Century Panglong Peace Conference. The public has the right to be informed and should be made aware of the issues as a constitutional analysis or ceasefire settlement.

Journalists, who are just doing their job, must be protected. Journalists should not be incarcerated because of their news coverage. The Myanmar Press Council was formed to safeguard the freedom of the press. It should be in harmony with the international standards. This Council needs to defend not only the freedom of the press, but also look after the safety of journalists.

While the country is at a crossroads of political change, journalists are looking forward to have more understanding and realistic backing from both internal and external media support organizations regarding freedom of the press.

The main challenge in Myanmar on this World Press Freedom Day is the issue of nationwide ceasefire between the ethnic armed groups and the government’s armed forces. Every single citizen has suffered from the impact of armed clashes. Free Ethnic Media could serve as a good channel for the ethnic armed groups, the government’s military, and the general public to create durable peace in this country.

The role of the “Free Media” is very important in time of peacemaking in a country where civil war has yet to end. If the government and all stakeholders failed to free the press including ethnic media, the ongoing democratic reform targeting peace and reconciliation will be completely fruitless.

Finally, the government has an obligation to amend the undemocratic clauses embedded in the 2013 Telecommunications Law, Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, 1996 Television and Video Law, 1996 Computer Science Development Law, 2002 Wide Area Network Order, and 2004 Electronic Transactions Law. Without abandoning those media oppressive laws, the press will not be free in Myanmar.


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