Fostering the Growth of the Fourth Estate

17 August 2016
Fostering the Growth of the Fourth Estate
The Mizzima Media Group and Action Aid hosted a conference on media policy in Myanmar on 15 May at Yangon’s Kandawgyi Palace Hotel. Photo: Mizzima

At a recently held policy dialogue on media development in Myanmar, Information Minister Dr. Pe Myint set out a forward looking agenda for the government. He pointed out that free and independent media as a fourth estate is an indicator of true and mature democracy and as such the government is striving to reach that stage through an accountable and transparent policy framework. U Aung Shin of the National League for Democracy (NLD) Central Information Committee also pointed out the party’s commitment to media freedom and accountability at a similar policy forum organized in February 2016. Moreover, Myanmar media experienced significant international visibility and played a central role in the elections of 2015 that heralded transition and change for the country. 
Nevertheless, the NLD led government is saddled with huge expectations from ordinary people and the global community in its commitment to usher in a new era in terms of free and fair media. As such, representatives from the media industry, civil society, academia, international development community and NGOs came together in the months of February and May 2016 in Yangon[1] and discussed various aspects of media development in order to provide input to the new government in its effort to develop a comprehensive media development policy.And while there have been a few initial and positive steps taken in this direction, like setting up a Press Council, there remains much to do in terms of policy and program.
It would be a formidable task for any new government to address the various aspects related to media development given the reality of the country’s recent history of a repressive and restrictive media environment. And though pre-censorship is now a thing of the past, media in Myanmar still operates under severe constraints.
For this reason, the current media situation demands change,a clear-cut policy and program for media development led by the government. The program has to be well nuanced and calibrated with clarity in terms of the roles of government and the private sector. It also has to be an outcome from a coordinated effort in terms of addressing some of the structural imbalances in terms of a dominant and economically strong government run media and weak private sector.
Discussion on topics related to media development in Myanmar evokes emotional responses across stakeholders – be they ordinary citizens as consumers, journalists, editors, media 

[1]The two policy dialogues were hosted by Mizzima Media and ActionAid. The first one was on 21 February 2016 and the second one was on 15 May 2016.

owners, civil society, political parties and others – due to the fact that all were victims of repressive state control over media and information. No democratic activist would wish to see arbitrary arrests of journalists, restrictions on freedom of expression and restricted media activity in terms of movement and access to information.At the same time, media is an intrinsic part of the democratic governance system as it is a vehicle for transparent and accountable information sharing between citizens and the government. Such a mechanism should be a two-way process wherein citizen grievances and issues receive attention through media. Accountable media and transparent governance go hand in hand in strengthening democracy.
It is from this perspective that the media development consultations previously mentioned came up with a series of recommendations for the consideration of the government. These need to be seen from the perspective of developing the media industry in all its facets, including financial sustainability.
Here are the central takeaways. It is important that a comprehensive media policy is to be released by the government articulating a long-term vision for a vibrant, independent and accountable media. Such a policy document ought to address issues of fair and legal mechanisms related to freedom of expression and media functioning; measures for fostering mutual accountability of media and the government; independent regulatory bodies for various media segments with parliamentary oversight; fostering a competitive environment by ending the monopoly of government controlled media; creating an investment climate for private sector media, particularly small and medium entrepreneurs as well as ethnic media; and finally measures to address financial viability and sustainability. The challenge is then where and how to start. One means forward would be to identify short, medium and long-term goals and policies so that a free and robust media functions in Myanmar in the interest of safeguarding democracy.
The following are some specific recommendations:
Media in Myanmar has a critical role in safeguarding democracy, developing an inclusive society and in addressing issues of peace, stability and unity. It should also have a role in addressing human rights, rural and urban development issues, inequalities, injustices and the all round development of society.

A responsible and independent media functions under an overall free and fair policy environment that works on principles of rule of law, democratic practice and values of fairness and justice. Media policy needs to be developed to foster freedom of expression, the free flow of information and the opinions of society. Given the vibrancy of social media in the public sphere, it is important to acknowledge its role in the country’s democratic environment.

Myanmar requires a holistic media policy that includes fair legal and regulatory mechanisms for freedom of expression (all types of transmission channels) and boosting the professional capacities and financial sustainability of different types of media. A comprehensive media policy on the lines of economic policy may enable building such a holistic vision and program of action covering print, electronic (broadcast) and social media. Such a policy statement may contain measures related to short, medium and long-term goals and actions and it should foster international norms and practices with respect to media and freedom of information.

An immediate task before the government is to review and amend all necessary laws related to media (and other connected laws)[2] in order to ensure freedom of expression and an independent media. Measures to ensure free and safe working conditions for journalists would be a first step in this direction. Identification of laws that hinder the free functioning of media and undertaking necessary amendments should be an urgent task of the government. Judicial reforms are also necessary in order to foster free press.

The predominant role of state media and the hitherto restrictive media environment created several peculiarities with respect to media development in Myanmar. It has led to stunted growth in terms of independent media and hence there is a need to create a level playing field in terms of media development.

Government commitment to dilute control over public media (print and broadcast) and create independent mechanisms (editorial and management) should be undertaken via broad public ownership and converting state media into public limited companies with independent management boards and editorial independence. Privatization, it needs to be noted, of government run media is not necessarily the only solution to reduce the monopoly of government media.

It is important to recognize that parliamentary oversight over public media would ensure accountability and transparency.

Media regulatory bodies like the Press Council and Broadcast Council and other such regulatory mechanisms ought to be under the oversight of parliament with periodic reviews by parliamentary sub-committees.

Measures to ensure private media development need to be taken from the point of view of developing ethnic media and the financial sustainability of media houses as well as building management and professional capacities in the media sector.A competitive media and broadcasting environment comprising private, public and community broadcasters should be the long-term goal of private sector development in media.

At the same time, cartelization and monopoly tendencies in media and the cannibalization of small and ethnic media need to be curbed through policy.While cross ownership between print and broadcast media requires prior permission from the government, and investment caps are indicated in the Broadcast Law, such policies need to be reviewed from time to time in order to ensure even and balanced media development and growth.

Another critical question is treatment of non-media business interests and corporate interests in media, which needs to be addressed through adequate regulatory instruments in terms of investment in media. The recent Broadcasting Law provides scope for addressing some of these tendencies, however the transparent and consistent application of laws and regulations then becomes critical. Mechanisms for the periodic sharing of information in relation to media licensing and ownership would be one critical step in this direction.

In order to foster new entrepreneurship in media, pro-active encouragement is needed for the small and medium segments of the media industry. Concessions for investment in media need to be seen from the perspective of regional and ethnic media development as well as regional distribution and coverage in rural and remote areas.   Investment concessions and tax concessions need to be extended to media on par with other economic sectors so that financial sustainability can be achieved. Curbing the government media monopoly over public advertisements and creating a fair and transparent mechanism for the government procurement process (media advertisements) would also lead to revenue generation for small and medium entrepreneurs.

Special and additional measures for ethnic media should foster their financial viability. Improving infrastructure (telecom, electricity, Internet) and concessional tariffs are also necessary for fostering private sector media development, particularly in ethnic areas.

Skill deficit in the media industry also needs to be addressed through a pro-active government policy. This may include promotional measures that encourage the private sector to engage in the development of professional journalists, on-job training mechanisms, collaboration with other development partners and the promotion of innovative mechanisms like community journalism and broadcasting.

Safeguarding the interests of workers in the media industry (both journalist and non-journalist) becomes paramount in the pursuit of media development. And while the large number of workers in government run media are covered through rules of the government,the work conditions of the growing number of workers in private sector media need to be addressed through statutory mechanisms in order to foster professionalism in the media industry.To this end, the rights of workers in the media industry need to be honored in order to allow them to accountably undertake their duties in the promotion and protection of the rights of citizens.

[2] For example, necessary review and amendments are needed with respect to the Official Secrets Act, New Media Law, Penal Code, Broadcasting Law and Printing and Publishing Law. Furthermore, freedom of expression is also not adequately protected in the constitution.