Media Development in Myanmar – Planning for the Future

A Comprehensive Media Policy for a Vibrant, Independent and Accountable Media


Attendees at the Fifth Conference on Media Development in Myanmar at the Chatrium Hotel in Yangon on 7 November 2016. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

Having a free 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. Accountable media and transparent governance thus go hand in hand in strengthening democracy. Moreover, 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. As such, media policy needs to be developed to foster freedom of expression, the free flow of information and the opinions of society.

With respect to developing policy, here are some key lessons to shape ongoing media reform in Myanmar. It is important that a comprehensive media policy articulates a long-term vision for a vibrant, independent and accountable media. Such a policy 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.

Overview of Reforms to Date

In recognition of the above points and the importance of a free, independent and vibrant media in support of the overall development of the state, a number of advances have already been made over some five years of reform. In one of the first clear indications that change was afoot, censorship in print media was abolished.

As of August 20, 2012, print media no longer were required to submit their products to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department prior to publication. This was followed in 2014 by the adoption of the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law which officially abolished past prior censorship and allowed newspapers to become editorially independent.

Additional legislative reform over the previous five years includes new media-related laws such as the Printing and Publishing Law, Media Law etc., while the Broadcast Law is currently being finalized.

Given the drastic changes in the Myanmar landscape, most notably the advent and growth of independent media – including the return of exile media groups such as DVB, Mizzima, Irrawaddy and Burma News International (BNI) – a major focus has been on developing requisite media skills and nurturing an institutional environment capable of exploiting the newly freed fourth estate.

With respect to institutional support, we have witnessed the establishment of such media/journalist groups as the Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN), Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU), etc. These national level networks are in addition to regional journalist associations such as the Southern Shan State Media Network and Chin Media Network. These groupings are in turn complimented by the formation of a News Media Council (Press Council).

Meanwhile, the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), founded in 2014, engages in professional journalism training programs, including programs aimed at the training of trainers. In its first year of operation, MJI matriculated 50 diploma graduates in addition to offering an array of short-term thematic training courses on such subjects as Election Reporting, Conflict Sensitive Journalism, Data Journalism, etc. Other private-initiated and founded educational facilities include the Yangon Journalism School (YJS), Mandalay Journalism School (MJS) and Yangon Film School (YFS).

Not to be ignored, government staff and politicians have also benefitted from such activities as media-related training for MPs and the establishment of spokespersons for each government ministry.

Bringing the various stakeholders in Myanmar’s media development together, we have seen the onset of Four Pillars meetings – spearheaded by the News Media Council and Ministry of Information (MOI) – bringing together representatives from the media, government, legislature and judiciary. This is in addition to regular meetings of the Media Development Thematic Working Group along with the organization of an annual Media Conference.

Lastly, in the promotion of Myanmar arts and heritage, the government has started restoring some Myanmar films, while overseeing the establishment of “Book Street” in Yangon on Saturdays and Sundays
along with the convening of Children’s Book Festivals.

Suggested Action Points

Despite the many accomplishments in reforming Myanmar’s media sector, there remains significant work yet to be done if we are to reach our goals for developing Myanmar media. Generally speaking, these reforms fall under four categories:

  1. Regulatory reform and policy development
  2. Support and promotional measures for the development of the media industry
  3. Empowering media and its inclusive development
  4. Providing professional and institutional capacity building

In addressing these thematic areas, it is hoped that the government can play a lead or supporting role in the following endeavors:

1. Regulatory reform and policy development

An immediate task before the government is to review and amend all necessary laws related to media, including:

  • Amendments with respect to the Official Secrets Act, New Media Law, Broadcasting Law and Printing and Publishing Law.
  • Measures to ensure free and safe working conditions for journalists.
  • Identification of laws that hinder the free functioning of media.
  • Addressing the treatment of non-media businesses and corporate interests in media through adequate regulatory instruments in terms of investment in media. While the recent Broadcasting Law provides scope for addressing some of these tendencies, the transparent and consistent application of laws and regulations becomes critical. Mechanisms for the periodic sharing of information in relation to media licensing and ownership would be one critical step in this direction.
  • Continued consultations with relevant stakeholders with a view to adopting a Right to Information (RTI) Law.
  • Adoption of legislation that protects confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
  • Significant reforms to the colonial-era Penal Code should be adopted. Any restriction on freedom of expression should be provided by law, limited to the protection of legitimate interests as listed in Article 19(3) of the ICCPR and necessary to protect those interests.
  • Blasphemy provisions in the Penal Code which go beyond protecting religious groups against incitement to hatred should be removed as well as the removal of defamation from the Penal Code.
  • The 1923 States Secret Act should be amended to conform to international standards.
  • The 2014 Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law should be amended to remove section eight which places restrictions on what print media can publish.
  • Restrictions to freedom of expression stipulated in the Electronic Transaction Law should be more narrowly defined, and criminal penalties for breaching these restrictions removed.
  • The Computer Sciences Law should be amended so that registration of Internet-capable devices is no longer legally required. Similarly, restrictions to freedom of expression in the Law should be more narrowly defined and criminal penalties for breaching these restrictions removed.
  • The Telecommunications Law should be amended to remove the defamation rule in Section 66(d) and to prevent the imposition of general suspensions of telecommunications services.
  • Updating of the Motion Picture Law through a process that is inclusive of representatives from the film industry and civil society. 

Concerning international law, Myanmar should sign and ratify international treaties which pertain to  freedom of expression, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Further, judicial reforms are necessary in order to foster a free press.Only a judiciary that acts independently can properly interpret laws that restrict freedom of expression in the public interest. The
government should promote the independence of the judiciary and address reported corruption issues within it.

Throughout, 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 staff in government-run media are covered through rules of the government,the work conditions of the growing number of workers in private sector media needs 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.

Lastly, in pursuing the entire agenda of regulatory reform related to the media industry, the government should promote wider public participation in the legal reform process and more proactively communicate on legal reforms pertaining to freedom of expression by creating opportunities for interaction with the public.

2. Support and promotional measures for the development of the media industry

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.

Promotional 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. The government’s decision to allow five new private independent television channels this year as MRTV content provider is a step in right direction.

As a result, the following steps should be taken by the government to ensure the realization of a diverse and level playing field across Myanmar’s media sector:

  • The cartelization and monopoly tendencies in media and the cannibalization of small and ethnic media need to be curbed through policy.
  • 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.
  • 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 periodically reviewed in order to ensure even and balanced media development and growth.
  • A regulatory review of the broadcasting sector should be conducted by civil society groups and/or media development stakeholders on the first anniversary of the enactment of the Broadcasting Law.
  • Conditions should be created allowing for the inclusion of broadcasters and civil society in the drafting of broadcasting bylaws. Relatedly, the bylaws should include detailed and realistic guidelines to limit undue media ownership concentration in the future and address existing concentration.
  • The Printers and Publishing Enterprise Law (PPEL) should be amended so that companies registering under the PPEL are required to make information about company ownership available to the public directly or through the media regulation authority.
  • Develop guidelines for the fair and unbiased placement of government advertisements in all types of media as well as a code of advertising for private media.
  • Establishment of an independent broadcasters’ association dedicated to the advancement of Myanmar’s broadcasting industry and an accompanying endowment fund.

This association, when formed,  would be well placed to achieve the following objectives:

1) Assist the government in strengthening the regulatory framework of the media and broadcasting industry.
2) Contribute to the capacity building efforts of the media and broadcasting industry.
3) Improve cooperation among the media and the broadcasting industry’s key stakeholders including
regulators, broadcasters, content providers and distributors.

Finally, it is important to recognize that throughout the process parliamentary oversight of public media would ensure accountability and transparency.

3. Empowering media and its inclusive development

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

However, it is not only the smaller, regional and ethnic media houses that require development assistance to foster a true democratic community, large media houses also demand attention. These media houses should work with the government in fomenting an environment conducive to Policy Dialogue and Consultation with and amongst stakeholders – something that has already successfully been implemented in the past.

4. Providing professional and institutional capacity building

While there has been a concerted effort to provide individual and institutional capacity building opportunities over the preceding five years, substantial efforts toward these ends are still required. Given the limited financial capacity of media houses to afford training courses/events, media development organizations should continue to subsidize and provide training courses in collaboration with training institutes.

To this end, basic journalism training should continue to be the main focus for journalists’ capacity-building projects. Efforts should be made to provide more of these training courses/events outside of Yangon as well as to conduct training in ethnic languages for ethnic media.

As a result, it is recommended the government support the following initiatives:

  • Community journalist training, expanding the base for community-based reporters throughout the country so that they can write and report about their areas and fields – with the expectation that some community journalists will in time become professional journalists. These community journalists can be a part of future “Communication Hubs” to be established in different parts of the country.
  • Media/public relations training for MPs and government ministries comprising two principle components. The first is knowledge sharing on media and media laws, while the second focuses on specific skills/techniques training. Sessions will further include language training. We need to have a training program set it up so that we can have trained public relations practitioners ready to be inducted into government ministries either as public relations team members or as individuals.
  • Expanding support for the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), especially as some international partners are cutting or diminishing their support. MJI has so far provided part-time training for more than 500 journalists over the last two years. It is currently providing a fulltime and part-time diploma course. It also provides thematic training on specific issues such as investigative reporting and climate change reporting.

MJI would benefit from expanding training through partnership with the government at two levels:

1) Recognition of MJI diploma courses as accredited by the government.
2) Establishment of a long-term facility in Yangon from which MJI can carry out their activities.

  • More conflict sensitive journalism training should be provided, particularly to journalists and media professionals based in conflict areas.
  • Gender and diversity should be included in both academic journalism education programs and training events for media professionals. 
  • Media management training should be more commonly conducted. A course should be specifically tailored for managers of small ethnic media outlets situated in remote locations.
  • The Myanmar News Media Council (MNMC) should proactively publish information on training opportunities through its website in order to inform media outlets situated in remote locations.
  • Media development organizations should play a role in equipping small media publishing houses with reference textbooks and publications. Providing open access resource centers for all journalists would serve to promote this goal. 
  • The National Management College should be supported to procure modern, audio-visual and broadcasting equipment so that it is appropriately equipped to teach broadcast media.
  • Combined efforts to promote the development of journalism programs in universities across Myanmar. Emphasis should be placed on selecting a university in Mandalay to offer a degree in journalism with a view to improve access to academic journalism training in the north of the country.
  • Continued support for civil society organizations(CSOs) in their media monitoring efforts, media literacy programs and research in order to address the existence of hate speech on social media and develop
  • mechanisms to counter it. 

An approach to address the above points of professional and institutional capacity building would benefit from the following:

  • Internal Track I consultation – to be led by MOI with stakeholders such as government leaders, CSO leaders, media leaders and experts.
  • External Track II consultation/dialogue – similar dialogue to what we have done in the past including the public, media, international support groups, etc.
  • The track I and II initiatives could be coordinated and overlap. MOI, it is envisioned, in collaboration with various donors can facilitate the development of these two tracks of engagement, leading to a harmonized thinking and development of media.

Lastly, in our endeavors to bring media and government representatives together, it is important to remember that while government, parliament and political power centers are in Nay Pyi Taw, media houses are mainly based in Yangon and Mandalay. This creates a gap in relations. We need to organize more events/gatherings along both tracks to bring together the various high-level stakeholders so that they have opportunities to exchange ideas and perspectives.

Conclusion

While the number and magnitude of reforms still needed in Myanmar’s media sector may at times seem overwhelming, we can classify high-priority near-term strategies and plans as essential in addressing the following eight priority areas:

  1. Reviewing and establishing democratic laws to guarantee media freedom and freedom of expression.
  2. Strengthening community groups such as journalists associations, press councils, etc.
  3. Capacity building for media-related stakeholders on media, journalism, and communication.
  4. Policy dialogue and consultation amongst stakeholders (especially government, private media, CSOs, elected officials and international support groups).
  5. Strengthening the digital and broadcast sector.
  6. Promotion of films, literature and books.
  7. Media and public relations capacity building for government ministries and MPs.
  8. Transforming state media to public service media.

If gradual policy development, support and encouragement can evolve to address the priority areas above, Myanmar has every chance to achieve a vibrant media sector capable of fulfilling its roles and responsibilities in the country’s wider democratic matrix.

Soe Myint is Editor in Chief of Mizzima Media Group

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