Myanmar's media development has stalled

Myanmar's media development has stalled

The atmosphere surrounding the development of liberal media in Myanmar, which began in earnest and has been carefully nurtured since 2012, is in a serious state of amnesia. This sentiment is widely felt and shared throughout the media community in the country.

The National League for Democracy (NLD)-led government has not yet harnessed the vibrant media environment and journalists' goodwill and enthusiasm for the country's benefit. Myanmar's journalists are suffering from acute anxiety about not knowing what their future holds.

Indeed, the Rakhine crisis serves as a barometer of Nay Pyi Taw's attitude toward information dissemination and sharing with the local media. Blame for international condemnation on the issue was squarely placed on local and foreign media. In fact, delayed release of information and tightly controlled media access to first-hand reports on the ground caused suspicion and conflicting reports about the real situation.

Huge discrepancies between what was reported and what actually happened allowed those with bad intentions to misinform the public around the world. This helps to explain why an inordinate amount of unsubstantiated news reports and footage about Rakhine has circulated on all media platforms, both inside and outside the country.

Though the Myanmar government has organised highly orchestrated press tours for local and foreign media since September, information from the northeastern region is still minimal in comparison to day-to-day developments on the ground, which have caused major concern around the world. Without adequate and timely reports by local media, foreign media will continue to serve as the primary source of information on the crisis. The government must trust its own media and provide them with a conducive environment to do their job undeterred.

It is unfortunate that the current government holds a negative attitude toward all forms of messengers. Worse, it shows the government's complete lack of understanding and appreciation of the unique nature and qualities of Myanmar's media practitioners. Without changing its mindset, the government's efforts to counter fake news will be futile.

Before August 2012, media freedom in Myanmar was ranked among the bottom three in the world. Since then, its ranking has improved every year. Until 2015, the press freedom indexes of key international media freedom monitoring organisations placed Myanmar among the top four in the 10-member Asean.

The quasi-civilian Thein Sein government opened up the country in the most incredible ways, with simultaneous political, economic and social reforms, especially the tightly capped media sector. There was a high level of excitement as pledges to promote an independent and pluralistic media were carried out albeit with a degree of slugglishness.

From late 2012 to early 2015, hundreds of regional and foreign media experts and their organisations were invited to serve as consultants to various media-related establishments in Myanmar. The government welcomed them with open arms, knowing full well that without media participation in the ongoing reforms, all its efforts would be futile. As a result, they focused on three broad areas -- public media law, freedom of information legislation and professional training.

Although the government recently granted five TV broadcasting licences to provide news content, little progress has been made in passing the public media law and transforming state-owned broadcasting into public service broadcasting. When Aung San Suu Kyi won the election in November 2015, there were high hopes that Myanmar would have the region's freest media.

Prior to the election, she was a media darling throughout the world. At that time, she promised to transform state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television. In 2015 Myanmar was poised to become the third country in Asean to enact a freedom of information act after Thailand (1997) and Indonesia (2004). However, President Rodrigo Duterte surprised the Filipino media by signing a Freedom of Information Order in July 2016. Despite his constant complaints about their negative reports and commentaries, the maverick president has an open mind and often holds briefings with the press corps.

Myanmar should now consider seeking further consultations with media stakeholders and civil society organisations so the freedom of information law can sail through parliament. With such a law, the public's right to know would be respected. Journalists can do their job with proper access to information.

To sustain the government's public support, local media must be given a bigger space and wider access to information. Nay Pyi Taw can no longer use the argument that local journalists are not skilled enough to handle issues related to nation building and security. Increased arrests and court cases under the current government for violation of Section (66)d of the Telecommunications Law has deepened mistrust between the state and media.

It is true most of the country's estimated 4,200 journalists are young and require more experience working in a freer media atmosphere with multiple contested news sources -- akin to the media landscape in Cambodia after the end of its 13-year conflict in 1992 and East Timor in 2000. Hands-on reporting in finance, diplomacy, the environment, energy and parliamentary affairs is urgently needed in both traditional and non-traditional media.

Last week, the 6th Conference on Media Development in Myanmar was held in Yangon without the presence of key ministers, raising concerns in the media industry that Nay Pyi Taw is no longer paying attention.

The conference, which attracted over 200 media practitioners, has been the source of ideas and input on media reform since 2012. They helped the relevant authorities map out media strategies to ensure that in the middle of unprecedented changes, they will be able to promote democratic discourse and development as well as good governance and transparency.

It is time the government listens.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Kavi Chongkittavorn

A veteran journalist on regional affairs

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs

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