I write to you today from Mizzima’s new headquarters on Pazungtaung Street in Yangon. It is an exciting time for Mizzima, but not only because of our new location. Today, we also celebrate the transition of our Myanmar language Daily News service from print copy to a digital format, as we embrace our drive as a pioneer of a new age of media for a new Myanmar.
And as Mizzima continues to evolve and adjust to life in our new Myanmar, so does the country’s media sector as a whole. Yet, even though we are now in our fifth year of media reform, I also see a media landscape that continues to struggle to guarantee independent media its rightful place in a free and democratic Myanmar.
As such, even though we continue to be busy in making sure our new headquarters is up and running, I would like to take a moment to convey to you a few of the things on my mind regarding media in our country.
Of great concern at present is the as yet immature and uneven media market. In Myanmar today, print private daily newspapers are only sustainable with huge, long-term financial backing. Evidence of this can be seen in the 50 percent of independent newspapers that no longer exist since being granted licenses. And we are likely to see even more daily private newspapers exiting the market within the next year or two.
Simply said, what we are witnessing at present is competition between big and powerful business interests which are pouring money into print daily newspapers.
Unfortunately, this is the reality of the skewed media landscape in which Mizzima is struggling to uphold the standards of independent and professional journalism.
Nevertheless, this little space in the print sector is virtually all the space in which independent media is permitted to operate. Our country desperately needs to open up its broadcast sector. It is of no small importance that states are required under international law to guarantee citizens freedom of expression “through any medium”.
Admittedly, a draft Broadcasting Law sits today in the lower house awaiting debate, having already been approved by the upper house. Yet, even if the law is approved by Parliament this year, it can only be implemented after the time consuming process of enacting various rules and regulations.
Realistically, then, we cannot expect any opening of the broadcast sector till after a new government is formed in the coming year. The significance of this for the 2015 elections is that state media will dominate the airwaves ahead of polling.
Further, even if we are to see a new Broadcasting Law in effect come 2016, what kind of broadcasting landscape can we expect to see for our country? Though the aim of the Broadcasting Law is to promote pluralism and divesity in the media, I maintain serious reservations whether it will significantly alter the existing broadcasting landscape.
For example, will the Broadcast Council pursue their duties with the drive and blessing of independence? Will the wording of the bill still provide the government with a means to restrict independent private media through specific clauses such as “cross platform ownership”?These are questions to which I eagerly await answers.
Moreover, there remain proportionate advantages for existing broadcasters who hold joint venture arrangements with the government, providing them with an advantage in both time and resources. At best, then, will our new broadcast sector merely start to mirror the print sector, with similar inherent and overriding privileges and inequities?
In the evolution of both the print and broadcast sectors, there is a clear indication of the government’s enduring lack of trust for a truly independent media landscape. No clearer evidence exists than ongoing government interference in market competition through the use of state-owned media outlets and enterprises.
If we are to truly witness widescale reforms of Myanmar’s media landscape, there must be an understanding of certainprinciple responsibilities of any government. As I am sure you understand. And in looking at the media sector, this means providing all citizens their right to enjoy freedom of expression in a pluralistic and diverse society.
So far this has not happened, and the current approach is consistent with the government’s policy to implement media reforms “stage by stage”. In other words, the government still wants to retain some control over the media sector and is keen to offer greater liberty to private media only in the timeframe of its choosing.
But, having already lost so much time in development and reform on a national scale, can we be content with yet further delays and stunting of our country’s social and economic potential?
Of course, I appreciate that we, as journalists, must also act responsibly. We must remain true to the ethical principles of our profession and refine our own independent voice in the face of the critical issues that impact our country and industry.
And I can assure you that we, at Mizzima, are striving every day to meet our responsbilities. To this end, we are proud to be the local partner in hosting the 2015 International Press Institute World Congress this March. The congress will provide journalists from around the world with a timely means of gathering in Yangon to assess and discuss the challenges and opportunities of media reform in Myanmar as well as how the media will be able to contribute to a free and fair electoral process.
In closing, I hope you are able to forgive my brevity during these busy times. But, I also trust you are able to appreciate the reality of where things stand today for the prospects of our country’s independent media.
U Soe Myint
This is the first “Letter from Pazungtaung”. Ensuing letters will follow roughly every two weeks. The letters are meant to reflect the personal observations and thoughts of Mizzima co-founder and Editor-in-Chief U Soe Myint.