Analysis: Myanmar’s Independent Media Struggling to Survive

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 12 September 2018

YANGON — At one point in his inaugural speech in March, Myanmar’s newly elected President U Win Myint implored members of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government to take seriously the role of the media as “the eyes and ears of the people.”

However, the sector he appeared to be supporting is in bad shape.

The sad truth is that independent media in Myanmar today are struggling to survive. And the print media have been hardest hit.

After allowing private dailies in 2013, the previous government approved 39, but only 19 saw the light of the day. Five years later, as of August this year, under the democratically elected government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD), there are only seven nationally distributed privately run papers left. Nearly all of them are in bad shape due to factors ranging from a drop in circulation to shrinking ads and high production costs, among others.

“If you think of the private print media in Myanmar today as a patient, it’s in the Intensive Care Unit,” said U Ko Ko, the editor of Democracy Today, which is among the seven struggling private dailies.

As these papers struggle for survival, the government is churning out an equal number of newspapers (the Ministry of Information’s three dailies, two papers published by the Mandalay government, one by the Yangon City Development Committee and the military-run Myawaddy Daily) with state funding. Advocates of independent media have strongly criticized the government for its failure to reform the state-run media, which have served as the government’s mouthpiece since the early 1960s.

Daily newspapers published by the Ministry of Information. / Htet Wai

Like their counterparts elsewhere, Myanmar’s state-owned media have a reputation for publishing nothing more than government press releases and a who’s who of participants in state meetings.

Media analysts and journalists in Myanmar stress that the country needs independent news outlets more than ever as it undergoes a democratic transition while facing mounting problems ranging from weak rule of law and rampant bureaucratic corruption to the faltering peace process with ethnic armed groups and the presence of military-run ministries within the government.

“The survival of private media is fundamental to democracy. Without them, there are no checks and balances on the government and other institutions,” said U Kyaw Min Swe, the editor of The Voice weekly.

No Level Playing Field

A roadside newsstand in Yangon in September 2018. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

During a discussion last month about the decline of private print media, panelists complained that the Ministry of Information sells its papers for less than 100 kyats—far less than the actual cost of around 150 kyats. Publishing the papers costs the government 1 billion kyats a year.

U Kyaw Min Swe of The Voice said the practice is in breach of the country’s Competition Law, which forbids selling a product at below market price. Currently, the newsstand price for a privately published newspaper in Myanmar is 200-300 kyats.

Circulation is another concern. While the government’s Kyemon (Mirror) publishes 200,000 copies per issue, Myanma Alin 150,000 and Global New Light of Myanmar 30,000, the circulations of the private dailies generally range from 10,000 to a bit more than 20,000.

“Comparing the circulations of state-run and private newspapers is like comparing an ant and an elephant,” U Ko Ko said during the discussion.

As a result, the government papers attract more advertising—starving the private media of ad revenue.

U Ko Ko said private media’s ad revenue dropped by more than 50 percent from 2017 to 2018, while U Kyaw Min Swe called on the government to limit advertising in state-run newspapers (mainly in the Burmese-language Kyemon and Myanma Alin).

“They’d better limit the ad pages. If you look at Kyemon, half of the paper is ads. As a state-run paper, it’s a shame,” he said.

The Voice editor U Kyaw Min Swe said the government is playing a “very unfair game” against the private media.

“They get a budget to publish the papers, use public transportation for distribution and sell them at a very low price. It’s very unfair,” he told the audience.

He also urged the MOI to liberalize the newspaper market by shutting down some of the government-run papers.

“Doing so would allow them to save face. At the same time, it would make it a bit easier for private papers to survive,” he said.

Information Minister U Pe Myint said in Parliament last week that his ministry sells the papers at affordable prices in order to better disseminate information to the public, not to make a profit. He was responding to a lawmaker’s question about the estimated 1.2 billion-kyat ($770,000) loss made by state-run newspapers in fiscal 2018-19.

He said that as part of its efforts to reduce the expected losses in the upcoming fiscal year, the ministry will expand circulation in order to reach more rural areas; reduce spending as much as it can; and seek to increase income from advertisements.

Repressive Laws

Reuters journalist Ko Wa Lone talks to the media on Sept. 3, 2018 after receiving a seven-year jail sentence. / Myo Min Soe

Under the democratically elected government, journalists in Myanmar are still vulnerable to lawsuits and arrest, for all their ethical professionalism. Two Reuters journalists were recently sentenced to seven years in prison under the British colonial-era Official Secrets Act over their reporting of security forces’ activities in Rakhine.

One of the most commonly used tools to muzzle the press is section 66 (d) of the Telecommunication Law, which allows anyone to sue the author of anything published on the Internet that they are not pleased with. Plaintiffs in cases filed against journalists range from military officers to regional chief ministers to ordinary citizens. There were at least three 66d cases filed against journalists last year.

Additionally, Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act prevents Myanmar journalists from gathering news. The arrests of The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma reporters by the Army last year after they covered a drug-burning event by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, an ethnic armed group, exposed the fragility of press freedom in the country.

U Than Zaw Aung, a member of the Myanmar Media Lawyer Network, a pro bono legal aid group for journalists, said if the government genuinely respected the private media as society’s “Fourth Estate”, it should at least do something to protect journalists who are doing their jobs, let alone scrapping repressive laws.

“There should at least be a clear statement stipulating that journalists should be charged [only] under the Media Law for alleged wrongdoings, regardless of what other laws say. This could create some breathing space for journalists,” he said.

But the current Media Law, enacted in 2014, only covers such transgressions as failing to publish corrections, plagiarism, doctoring pictures and videos, defamation and violating human rights when not in the public interest, leaving journalists vulnerable to prosecution under other laws.

Access to Information

While the Media Law clearly encourages the media to act as a Fourth Estate, and grants journalists rights and independence in news gathering, reporters on the ground struggle to access information.

Here again, the state-owned media—especially broadcasters and their partners—continue to have the upper hand in terms of access to national and state government information sources. The most recent example was the presidential meeting with representatives of the legislative, administrative and judicial sectors in Yangon last month. Already known for his blunt remarks on regional governments’ incompetence, President U Win Myint made interesting comments about the Yangon government, which has come in for public criticism over its controversial development projects and handling of judicial cases. But the Yangon Regional Government refused to allow private media to attend, limiting the coverage of the meeting to state broadcaster MRTV and its partner Sky Net, drawing the ire of independent journalists.

Broadcast Media Struggling

While the print media struggle for survival, private broadcasters aren’t doing much better.

U Toe Zaw Lat of Democratic Voice of Burma, a former exile media group based in Norway and one of the five new free-to-air digital TV channels permitted to launch in Myanmar early this year, said the broadcast sector in the country is facing two pressing issues: an unclear and unfair regulatory environment under the 2015 Broadcasting Law and a shrinking advertising market.

Including the five new digital channels, Myanmar now has more than a dozen free-to-air channels—all are state or military owned, or else are joint ventures with the Ministry of Information, and all are broadcast through the government’s Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) system. The new channels struggle to attract advertising, the lion’s share of which goes to the long-established existing broadcasters.

The Broadcast Law states that all channels currently on air will have to reapply for broadcast licenses once additional bylaws are passed. “That could create fair competition among broadcasters by creating a level playing field, as licenses will only be granted to those deemed fit,” said U Toe Zaw Lat.

U Ko Ko, the Democracy Today editor who also serves as vice president of the Myanmar Broadcasters’ Association, said the current legal limbo created a situation in which “We know where to go but don’t know how.”

Broadcasting advertising revenue is shrinking due to the current economic slowdown in the country, he said.

“It’s a vicious cycle. Shrinking ads lead to a decline in income. If you can’t spend, your content won’t attract an audience. A smaller audience means fewer ads,” he said.

Media We Can Trust

Lawmakers read newspapers at the Parliament library in February 2016. / Myo Min Soe

U Kyaw Min Swe of The Voice said media professionals themselves also need to be qualified in order to win the public trust.

But it is difficult to gauge how successful they have been in this regard, as there has been no proper survey on the issue yet.

“The NLD is the most popular party in the country, and the general public seems inclined to read or hear something rosy about the party they support. Otherwise, you’ll be labeled as troublesome media professionals. That’s how most people react to the media these days,” said U Ye Naing Moe, the founding director of the Yangon Journalism School.

The most glaring example is the case of the two Reuters journalists, who were sentenced to seven years in jail. According to the verdict in their case, they breached the Official Secrets Act. But it is an open secret that they were convicted for their story about the killing of a group of Rohingya men by security forces in northern Rakhine State. The Army later admitted the crime had taken place when it punished those involved with 10-year prison sentences.

But public opinion over the case is sharply divided. Some believe the journalists deserved to be punished as they shamed the country internationally by revealing the case, while others applauded them for doing their job and exposing extrajudicial killings by the security forces.

In this climate of hostility toward independent media, the government has offered journalists little support, despite the president’s assertion that the role of the media should be taken seriously. “In order to support journalists here, there needs to be a culture that values the work of media professionals, even by the government,” U Ye Naing Moe said.

To gain the public trust, he said, journalists need to stick to the fundamentals of their profession: accuracy, balance and fairness in reporting.

“In the short term, it will be painful [as journalists will be attacked for publishing the truth] but in the longer term the independent media are the only ones who will be able to earn the public trust,” he said.