Media development is a serious business in Burma. After the government in Naypyidaw decided to open up the country, it picked media as a top priority. For the past 15 months, media development has been the most exciting area which is being closely watched by the international community.
Literally every international media assistance program has now established a presences inside Burma, offering training and workshops and drafting various media development plans. UNESCO has spearheaded efforts to promote press freedom inside Burma using its vast experience from other developing countries. For the first time, the country will celebrate World Press Freedom Day on May 3 to herald new media freedom inside the country.
Within the context of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), the pattern of media development in Burma has been unprecedented. The country now enjoys freer media, as the Registration of Printers and Publishers Law of 1962 has been abolished. Soon, licenses for private daily newspaper will be granted. Exiled media have returned home and set up shop locally. A media law is now being drafted by journalists in consultation with the government. There will also be a national press council. Other measures are in the offing to institutionalize democratic media development so that it will serve a larger public.
Indeed, the government now envisages that only two forms of media will emerge: public service media and private media. Recently, the Ministry of Information presented a comprehensive plan to transform all state-owned media into public service media.
It might sound a bit ironic as the country was under tight military control with total censorship for nearly half a century. But now it is a fact of life, and it is happening for good reasons. Burma knows that political reform, especially when it comes to the media, will attract international attention and sympathy. Instead of delaying or shying away, it has decided to take the bull by the horns and open up the media arena, with some good results. After decades of strong condemnations, Burma has finally received some good press coverage commending its latest reform efforts. The war with minorities, especially the Kachin, as well as the plight of the Rohingya have also received global media attention. It’s all part of openness.
Two important areas of media reform to watch will be the transformation of Myanmar Radio and Television as well as the future of new media. The BBC has been helping more than a thousand MRTV staffers to change their deeply imbedded mindsets and accept a modern world of news management and reporting. Within this year, MRTV will come up with a new style of presentation and content. Staffers have been trained to report, write and edit in professional ways. They are also told to think independently and not to wait for the government’s press releases.
Given its young population, with people between the ages of 15 and 59 making up 60 percent of the country’s estimated population of 60 million, Burma’s new media scene will be fast moving. New styles and varieties of news and data contents are emerging. Just the beginning of last year, smart phones were a rarity as the price was still extremely high. Right now, however, they have become the most popular personal item to own among local people. As such, Internet and mobile phones will harness the young users. The government in Naypyidaw also wants to engage the estimated three million-strong diaspora of Burmese living and working overseas. They are good sources of foreign exchange and know-how. At the moment, there are already news services for mobile phones through SMS systems.
The government also has a plan to transform a semi state-owned translation organization, known as Sarpay Beikman, which publishes and translates literary works, into a public service organization. It is a tall order. The organization needs capacity building and language ability to select and translate high-quality books and publications. It will be also tasked with the drafting of a public service publishing law in the near future.