By Ye Kaung Myint Maung
Burma’s (Myanmar) media industry was crippled by repressive censorship rules of the dictatorship government for more than two decades. So the ruling military’s recent U-turn decision to allow democratic elections and restore civilian government surprised the world as well as its own people.
Last year, the media in this newly democratized country witnessed a series of milestones by the newly elected quasi-civilian government. The country’s parliament officially disbanded the decades old Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) on 24 January 2013 and granted permission for the daily newspapers that have been deterred since the 1990’s.
With the end of harsh censorship rules, return of daily newspapers and the guarantee for media freedom, it seems the country’s media industry is at the end of tunnel.
A military coup that followed nationwide revolution in 1988, allowed the ruling regime to tighten its grip on the media. It placed all broadcast media and three daily newspapers under the Ministry of Information and established the notorious Press Scrutiny Board to oversee publications. It required every printed media in the country to present their contents for approval, usually one week in advance, thus, making private run daily newspaper publication impossible.
The move towards greater press freedom is one of the centerpiece efforts towards democracy. After half a century of authoritarian rule, the regime’s corruption and mismanagement reduced the South East Asian country with 60 million people from the most promising economy of South East Asia into one of least developed countries in the world.
The Burmese President Thein Sein, an ex-general who was appointed as the prime minister in 2007 and became a civilian president after 2010 election, recalled Burma’s political exiles to the country and to help in its development. This included a number of civil rights activists, foreign journalists, dignitaries and anti-dictatorship media working in exile since 1988.
Most prominently, Delhi-based Mizzima news, Chiang Mai-based magazine The Irrawaddy and Oslo-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are now on back in the country to join in burgeoning local media.
Another positive sign in Burma’s media landscape is the emergence of provincial and ethnic journals in different parts of the country. For example, in the Shan, Mon, Karen and Chin States and in the Bago Division, provincial news journals focus on news of their respective regions and regional interests. Some have separate sections in ethnic languages, which are vital for sustaining their ethnic cultures and languages , which are usually not covered by mainstream publications..
On the other hand, Burma’s new media environment has greatly affected the state-owned media. They must choose between shifting away from their established role as government mouthpieces or becoming obsolete among competitive private run media.
In October 2012, in an attempt to maintain the dominant position, the Ministry of Information, announced that existing state-own media would become “public service media”, which will maintain the privileges in state sponsored news operations and use of media infrastructures.
In the post-censorship period, the struggle for press-freedom in Burma continues. A number of government officials and private citizens have demonstrated discomfort with the freer media environment.
Warnings and suspensions were imposed for news or opinion articles for writing critical of governance or questioning the corporate responsibility of businesses with military ties. Lawsuits against media for defamation are on the rise. There are more incidents of reporters being attacked, assaulted or threatened for trying to report on corruption and inferior public works.
Even the public fails to see the media as a Fourth Estate or a reliable institution in nations building. It was apparent when the famous actress physically assaulted a reporter for asking provocative questions on her marriage. Despite being assaulted physically in public, the people blamed the press for being inconsiderate and overwhelmingly showed their supports to the actress. The reporter took her case to the court. The trials took over a year and finally ended with a fine of 1000 kyats ($1.20 US) to the actress.
Lacking an organization that represents the media industry makes journalists somewhat helpless in the time of assaults or lawsuits. The government founded Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association (MJWA) as sole the legal journalist association, but its functions were just perfunctory to please the regime and not to back press freedom.
MWJA dissolved last year. Three new journalist organizations have emerged. First, Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), is intended to replace the role of MJWA with most of its key members coming from MJWA. Second, the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) is mainly composed of young reporters and editors. MJN started in late 2011 as a self-help journalist group. Finally, the Myanmar Journalist Union (MJU) was formed by Zaw Thet Htwe, a famous journalist imprisoned for many times.
Although there were criticisms for forming separate groups instead of a consolidated one, all of these journalist groups claim common goals for development of the media industry: safeguarding press freedom and enhancing journalist’s rights. Many journalists hold overlapping memberships. The groups take part in government initiatives, conduct media training, and work with media organizations abroad to exchange information on the local and international media industry.
Now Burmese journalists are using their new freedoms to cover issues of internal violence and ethnic strife that had long been censored.
The rape and murder of a Rakhine girl by three Rohingya men in western Rakhine State in May 2012, led to revenge killing of ten innocent Muslims and rapidly escalated into deadly communal riots in June and October 2012. The Rohingya issue is always a sensitive one. Local media were once barred from publishing anything about Buddist-Muslim tensions.
This communal violence has starkly divided the local media and the formerly exiled and foreign media. They frame the conflict from different perspectives. Local media were accused of fueling the ethnic conflict by taking sides with the majority Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and discriminating against the Rohingya, who are not recognized as indigenous people of Burma and widely considered illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.
At the same time, local media criticized the formerly exiled and international media of taking sides with the Rohingya, internationalizing a local issue, portraying communal violence as genocide and undermining national sovereignty over human rights.
During the height of conflict, both sides were accused of issuing biased or even fabricated reports and misleading photographs of the violence in their printed and online social media pages. People rallied in front of the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) which published a map of Myanmar labeling the Rakhine State as land of Rohingya.
The Rakhine conflict has altered alliances among media and concerned parties. Traditionally, all media in the country stood together with political parties and UN organizations against the government and military to condemn the abuses in the ethnic conflicts. But the Rohingya issue gives local media and political parties (both Burmese and ethnic parties) common ground. Local media hailed the military as safeguarding national sovereignty and criticized the international press as being in favor of illegal immigrants.
Often, the divided media industry is reunited whenever restraints fall upon the industry as a whole. The solidarity of journalists was displayed when the local journalists staged the street protests on 6 August against the suspension of two weekly journals. The results: the authorities reversed the suspensions.
In November 2013, a young gregarious reporter working for Radio Free Asia was severely injured in motorcycle accident. As he lay on his deathbed, journalists across the country came together to arrange for his brain surgery and collect funds for urgent medical treatments. Although the young journalist passed away with head injuries on 25th November 2013, Burma’s journalists found themselves united, praying for recovery of their fellow journalist and showing support on social media.
Finally, despite the end of censorship, public distrust, limited capacities, few resources and an unfavorable atmosphere make people wonder what more challenges will come to Burma’s media industry. Burma’s newly democratized government and its vulnerable media in transition must figure out how to handle the society’s fragile ethnic conflicts and communal tension. At this point, it is certain to say that there will be more dramas.