State Dailies Blasé, Brief in Coverage of Parliament’s New Cast

By Tin Htet Paing 2 February 2016

RANGOON — The international community and local private dailies heralded the first day of the new Parliament’s term on Monday, but less effusive and generous in its coverage of the historic milestone was Burma’s state-run media.

Local and foreign media outlets descended on the capital Naypyidaw this week to cover the swearing in of the legislature’s new batch of lawmakers, most hailing from the National League for Democracy (NLD) after the party’s November election triumph.

More than 600 journalists were reportedly present at the parliamentary complex on Monday and private dailies the next day splashed coverage across their front pages with banner headlines like that of The Voice, proclaiming: “A Historic Day.”

Parliamentary coverage was more muted on the front pages of Tuesday’s state-owned Burmese language newspapers, The Mirror and Myanma Alinn, with the big day in Naypyidaw competing for ink with other local stories on page one and an inside article securing only one page in Tuesday’s 32-page editorial package.

English-language state daily the Global New Light of Myanmar was slightly more generous, offering a large photo of the Lower House speakers’ swearing in and just over 150 words on the parliamentary proceedings.

While there was admittedly little official business conducted on Monday, with the day more newsworthy for its historic significance than any legislative proceedings that transpired, state dailies’ editorial weighting was markedly different five years ago, when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) dominated a legislature seated after a 2010 election widely criticized as fraudulent.

The Feb. 1, 2011 editions of the state-run Burmese language dailies dedicated their entire front pages and more than 10 pages of inside coverage to the preceding parliamentary term’s first day. Nine of the English-language New Light of Myanmar’s 16 pages were also filled with parliamentary proceedings, including a full front-page spread.

While state media’s evolution over the last five years has been notable as it has moved from less overt propaganda to filling its pages with more newsworthy content, few would deny that it remains today a government organ more at home in an authoritarian dictatorship like North Korea than the fledgling democracy that many Burmese aspire to.

The three state-owned dailies—The Mirror, Myanma Alinn and Global New Light of Myanmar—are currently run by the Ministry of Information, which has vowed since late 2012 to be more independent with the goal of transforming the newspapers into “public service media.”

Last year’s lead-up to the election, in which the victorious NLD dominated what was a two-horse contest in most constituencies with the ruling USDP, offered an opportunity for the publications to prove their commitment to editorial reform. The dailies opted to largely stay away from overtly partisan coverage, with some exceptions.

During the pre-vote period, a local media monitoring group nonetheless reported that state-run media had been consistently unbalanced in its coverage of the campaign, putting greater emphasis on stories about state officials carrying out mundane government functions while not giving due space and airtime to other political parties or their candidates.