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Myanmar's (not quite) free media

A Buddhist monk reads a newspaper while waiting at Hledan Junction rail station in Yangon.   © Photo by Steve Tickner

YANGON -- After five decades of strict censorship and official suppression, Myanmar's media are, ironically, now considered freer than their counterparts in neighboring Malaysia, Laos, Vietnam and the Philippines, according to media watchdog organizations such as Reporters Without Borders.

     "We have a free press now," said Kyaw Min Swe, general secretary of the Interim Press Council, a journalists' group set up by President Thein Sein to help draft the media law, one of two new journalism codes enacted in mid-March. During 2013, the government issued 31 permits to publish private daily newspapers -- in a dramatic break with decades of military rule when only state-run dailies were allowed, including the now partially privatized New Light of Myanmar.

     Encouraging the surge of independent newspapers is the new media law, which aims to ensure the press can "freely criticize, point out or recommend operating procedures of the legislative, the executive and judiciary in conformity with the constitution."

     Since coming to power in early 2011, the Thein Sein government has often spoken in favor of media freedom, ending formal censorship in late 2012 and freeing nearly all jailed journalists in successive amnesties. Underscoring this momentum, Ye Htut, the presidential spokesman, told a recent international media conference, "The president believes the media has a clear role in democracy."

     Despite such reforms, Myanmar's journalists are sometimes cautious about what they report, retaining what Kyaw Min Swe described as a tendency toward "self-censorship" that has replaced the old, top-down approach -- particularly when reporting on the still-powerful military.

     On another front, rising tensions in parts of the country, both religious and ethnic, could hasten the media's self-censoring inclinations. Fueling such concerns is the new printers and publishers registration law -- the other media code enacted last month -- which gives the government power to issue and revoke publication licenses.

     A provision of the law is similar to systems such as Malaysia's, under which the home ministry reviews -- and can revoke -- publication permits. The upshot is a relatively timid print media. "In the past, we had seen newspapers having difficulties in renewing the annual licenses over their reports that were not deemed to be friendly to the government," K. Kabilan, chief editor of Free Malaysia Today, a news website, said.

Accusations fly

In Myanmar -- where religious tensions are running high and the government is negotiating a nationwide ceasefire with ethnic militias -- private newspapers have been accused of bias or fueling tensions.

     The media law states: "Ways of writing which may inflame conflicts regarding nationality, religion and race shall be avoided." The publishers' code, meanwhile, suggests a potential clampdown on any publication deemed to "insult religion," "disturb the rule of law," "incite unrest," "violate the constitution" or "harm ethnic unity."

     There have been other indications of backsliding, such as arrests of local journalists and tightening of visa requirements for the foreign press. Five staff members of Unity Journal, an independent newspaper, face trial over a report alleging that Myanmar's military was running a chemical weapons factory. Tougher entry rules for foreign media followed government claims of inaccurate or biased coverage of violence against Rohingya Muslims in the western state of Rakhine.

     In addition to the new print media laws, there is a draft broadcasting law. This bill aims to transform Myanmar's state television, radio and print propaganda platforms into what has been dubbed "public service media."

     But Bill Hayton, a journalist and author who assisted official efforts to create a public service broadcaster, said the government "appears to want it both ways" when it comes to allowing a free press. The aim, he said, is to create the "appearance of liberalization with the apparatus of control hidden in the background. We can see the same with the draft broadcasting law, which gives the government and the military continuing oversight of radio and TV."

Media swamp

Free speech advocates outside Myanmar welcome the more liberal aspects of the broadcasting bill. But many local media representatives say that aside from introducing public service radio and TV, the state should not be funding print media. The IPC's Kyaw Min Swe is also editor-in-chief of The Voice Daily, one of the new crop of private daily newspapers. He fears the government will use its resources to swamp private media, which "is losing money daily," he said. "State-owned newspapers have the advantage of government resources and distribution. We cannot match their logistics." 

     To add to the challenge, the state-controlled New Light of Myanmar is undergoing a makeover. Derided for its old-fashioned, North Korean-style presentation of official propaganda, the paper was partly privatized after Global Direct Link, a small and relatively little-known local media company, purchased a 49% stake in mid-2013. As part of this transition, the New Light is aiming to boost its output amid growing competition. The paper's staff -- a mix of bureaucrats and former military personnel, rather than journalists -- are receiving media training from Japan's Kyodo News.

     Than Myint Tun, chief editor of the state group, said he hoped a higher-brow version of the New Light will be launched by June.

     For struggling private newspapers, the prospect of a "public service newspaper" backed by both government and private-sector resources is unwelcome for editorial as well as commercial reasons. "Every ministry gives information to the state media first," said Kyaw Min Swe. "They will get the scoops ahead of us."

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