Recently, I sat down with a small group of people, including some journalist friends, to talk about Myanmar’s media landscape. One of the questions that came up was whether independent journalism had any future in this country.
Perhaps because we all wanted to have something helpful and constructive to say, we generally agreed that yes, independent journalism does stand a chance of surviving in Myanmar.
As a matter of fact, however, the reality on the ground doesn’t really support this sanguine view.
Looking back, we can see that in the half century after the late dictator Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962 and nationalized the country’s newspapers, independent journalism was all but nonexistent here. Under military rule, state-run media disseminated a relentless stream of pro-junta propaganda, and private media—which returned after 1988—was heavily censored.
During that dark era, journalists who dared to report on the ruling regime’s many misdeeds were routinely locked up. Press freedom was dead, and journalism could no longer be regarded as a real profession.
But even when the situation inside the country was at its most dire, the desire for reliable news and information never died. To meet this need, exiled media groups mushroomed outside the country, and broadcasters like the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia provided Myanmar-language services that helped to counter the lies of the official media.
Until the nominally civilian government of President U TheinSein started introducing media reforms in 2012, Myanmar journalists working abroad were barred from entering the country, and those already inside were effectively silenced. Then everything changed. The country’s draconian censorship board was abolished, and in 2013, some private media groups were given permission to publish daily newspapers. Exiled media groups such as The Irrawaddy were also allowed to set up offices inside the country for the first time in decades.
As significant as these developments were, however, they offered no guarantee that the government was ready to see independent journalism take root again in Myanmar. And, indeed, what we have seen since strongly suggests that the Ministry of Information (MOI)—which once wielded the censorship board like a club to beat the media into submission—remains as committed as ever to controlling the non-state media sector.
This is why it comes as a surprise to many journalists struggling to survive in the “space” created by Myanmar’s government that some Western-based media-freedom organizations have so heartily endorsed the country’s still narrow reforms, and have even begun bolstering the capacity of the state’s propaganda apparatus.
Spearheaded by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco), these efforts—being carried out in the name of turning The New Light of Myanmar, MRTV and other former junta mouthpieces into “public service media”—will serve only to make Myanmar’s government more effective at manipulating the public. Meanwhile, other voices will continue to be drowned out.
In theory, Myanmar could certainly do with a public service media that is genuinely committed to keeping the country’s people informed. The problem is that almost all of the individuals now being trained by the BBC, the Associated Press, Kyodo News and other respected international news agencies have spent most of their careers fighting on the frontlines of the former junta’s endless psychological warfare campaigns. Simply enabling them to do a better job of pushing the government’s official line is the last thing the country needs.
If Unesco and the other partners in this enterprise of turning former military officials into “professional” journalists really want to help, they will have to do more than teach them how to perform a few superficial tricks that give the impression of greater openness.
Some observers have noticed that the English-language newspaper The New Light of Myanmar is no longer as crudely one-sided as it once was, and sometimes even reports on issues such as human rights abuses and land grabs (without going too deeply into why both are still endemic in this country). At the same time, however, the Myanmar-language state media continues to shy away from any subject that could easily lead to criticism of the government or the military. Evidently, what’s good for the growing number of foreigners entering the country is not good for Myanmar’s masses.
In 2012, when I met high-ranking officials from the MOI for the first time, I suggested to them that if they really wanted to create a genuine public service media, they shouldn’t waste their time trying to transform the state-run media. It would be better, I said, to let media professionals create a new, independent public service media with the help of international media organizations.
Needless to say, my arguments didn’t have much of an impact on their thinking. I can’t say I’m surprised. Why, after all, would they give up their stranglehold on the media sector—making room only for a few crony-owned media groups such as Skynet (owned by the Shwe Than Lwin Company) and MRTV-4 (owned by the Forever Group)—when all they had to do was drop some of their more egregious habits and go through the motions of reforming themselves?
If you try to find independent media in Myanmar today, you’ll soon see that there are only a handful of organizations that fit the description. And if you’re concerned about the country’s prospects of completing its transition to democracy, this should be a major worry. Without an independent media to monitor those in power, next year’s election could prove to be as farcical as the one in 2010.
Actually, it would be quite easy to reestablish independent media in Myanmar. The country has a small army of fledgling journalists eager to do their part to restore their profession to its rightful place as one of the pillars of a democratic society. All they need is freedom and the support of experienced domestic and international journalists. The government wouldn’t have to do a thing.
It certainly isn’t the government’s place to police the media and enforce its own “ethical standards” on a profession it has never really understood. If mistakes are made, they can be addressed through mechanisms established by experienced practitioners of the trade, not by bureaucrats.
Myanmar has no shortage of reporters—both trained professionals and “citizen journalists”—capable of uncovering facts that some would like to keep hidden. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis the following year, the ruling regime was unable to conceal its brutality and callous indifference to the loss of human life because of the courage of countless citizens who risked their lives and freedom to document the truth. With the right guidance—from qualified colleagues, not meddling officials—they could be an even more formidable force for good in the country’s future.
Independent-minded journalists are an enormous asset to any democratic society, and if the international community truly believes that democracy is what Myanmar deserves and needs, it should invest in those who would be its best guardians. Supporting apparatchiks with press cards is a waste of time we can no longer afford.
Kyaw Zwa Moe is the editor of the English-language edition of The Irrawaddy. The article first appeared in the July print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.