Guest Column

Myanmar Deserves More Than a Miserable Media Environment

By Kyaw Kyaw Thein 6 June 2017

According to the recently-released 2017 World Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), Myanmar moved up 12 places in the rankings since last year and stands at 131 among 180 countries. In making its assessment, RSF acknowledged that the National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government amnestied journalists imprisoned under Thein Sein’s government and repealed the state of emergency law. But it also pointed out, correctly, that “… self-censorship continues in connection to government officials and military officers. The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed.”

RSF is right in saying that self-censorship still prevails, especially when it comes to government officials and military officers as there continued to be troubling media cases during the past year, such as “watch-gate.” This was an ugly fight between Yangon Division Chief Minister U Phyo Min Thein and Eleven Media Group, where the latter essentially accused the former of corruption. This eventually led to the detention of its CEO and Editor-in-Chief for some time. While they were both released on bail, they are still facing trial. Since then, it has been rare to see anyone critically write or talk about this case and even Eleven Media itself has been silent about it.

Is Myanmar’s media landscape better off now than two years ago? The answer will surely be controversial. If you are a government official or a pro-government person, you will definitely say “yes.” If you are media personnel such as a reporter, producer, editor, or someone who is running a media organization, you will no doubt answer that question with reservations.

Does Myanmar’s media not have freedom of speech now? The answer is yes and no. Is there any repression of the media now? The answer to this is also yes and no. In fact, Myanmar’s media is enjoying a certain level of freedom and is much better off than neighbors like China and Thailand, and even better than regional neighbors such as the richest and most developed country in the region, Singapore, or the rising star, Vietnam. According to RSF’s ranking, Myanmar now ranks third in press freedom among ASEAN countries after Indonesia (124) and the Philippines (127).

Since the NLD-led government took power, there has been no obvious repression of the media, as there was in the past. Myanmar has moved up from being labelled one of the worst violators of freedom of the press to one of 20 countries where a “difficult situation” still exists. That category includes all of Myanmar’s neighbor countries, except China and Laos, which are labelled under “very serious situation” according to RSF.

But, is this incremental improvement good enough? Does Myanmar’s media deserve only that? Does the country deserve only that? In the point of view of this author, the answer is much more than “no.” Myanmar’s media deserves much more than that and the country and the people also deserve more.

Myanmar people have been fighting for freedom from all kinds of fears, and for human dignity and human rights. But for a long time, we have had no idea of what freedom, human dignity or human rights would look like, let alone what media freedom or freedom of the press would entail. Many generations of Myanmar people have lived under oppressive regimes in one form or another. Throughout their entire lives, they have been familiar with government-controlled media, with little or no access to other sources of information.

The worst thing is that for generations the authorities have taken the position of assuming themselves to be superhuman. For example, during the one-party rule of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), led by the late dictator Gen Ne Win, people were not allowed to participate freely in political, social, or economic matters in the country. He controlled practically every aspect of people’s daily lives. Through this era and later military governments, the authorities set the rules, made decisions for others as to what was good and bad, and created and practiced whatever policies they liked.  The reason they gave was the interest of the country and the people, and there was no space for the public to question these claims or file complaints.

There are many examples to prove this point, but one recent one stands out in particular. In May 2008, Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar hard. In the hours and days after, thousands of people were presumed dead and hundreds of thousands or more lost their livelihoods. The international community offered assistance right away. But, the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), led by former Sen-Gen Than Shwe, denied their offers in the early stages of the aftermath, when people were in urgent need of help. Even worse, the SPDC forcibly conducted a referendum on the 2008 Constitution just after Nargis, when people were still in dire need. This showed yet again how those in power controlled people’s lives.

That “black-out period” (in terms of media and information access, but also in terms of people’s ability to live meaningful lives more generally) spanned more than a generation. During this time, people had to live under the supervision of those who had appointed themselves as “guardians of the public.”

It is an undeniable fact that the situation is much better now than in those days. But, can we say there are not people today who act superhuman and set the rules for others, make decisions for others regarding what is good and bad and create and practice policies they choose, stating that it is for the benefit of the people? These people still exist, though not as many and not in such distinguished ways as before.

The question, then, to those government officials and pro-government people who defend the government’s action or inaction, especially on press freedom, is whether this government is doing enough to guarantee press freedom and to nurture independent media so the public can be free from the hands of those superhuman beings? The answer apparently is “no” and it is a sad story.

As everyone knows, the military in Myanmar controls 25 percent of the seats at all levels of Parliament and three major ministries (Defense, Border Affairs and Home Affairs), which hold guns. This means that Myanmar’s democratization work (including press freedom) can only progress 75 percent. Even in that 75 percent, progress is limited because the bureaucracy inherited from previous regimes is gigantic and still well-protected. After subtracting an additional percentage because of that gigantic bureaucracy, is the rest of the government committed to making progress on press freedom? The answer again is “no” and it is an even more sad story.

There were reports that NLD lawmakers were asked by the party hierarchy not to talk to the media on certain issues and not to appear on particular discussion programs. The right to information has still not improved, even though the NLD-led government has appointed most of the ministers. The government-owned media is still running full throttle and is even extending its reach. On the other hand, the independent media is struggling to compete with government media, especially on the revenue front.

Why is it that the so-called “people’s party,” the NLD, which used to be at the forefront of fighting against those “superhuman beings,” has not done more for freedom of the press? What are they afraid of? Why can’t they let independent media fully blossom and play its crucial role in providing information for the public to be free from fear, to fully enjoy human dignity and human rights? What are they concerned about?

As long as those questions are not answered fully and comprehensively, Myanmar’s media will remain in a miserable state.

Kyaw Kyaw Thein is a broadcast journalist with more than 11 years of experience in the field. The views expressed here are solely his own and do not reflect the views and policies of the media organization for which he is currently working.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.