Myanmar Media in Transition

Excerpted with minor revisions from the new volume Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change, edited by Lisa Brooten, Jane Madlyn McElhone, and Gayathry Venkiteswaran (Singapore: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 2019). Reproduced with permission.

At the end of August 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) released its report summarizing the main findings and recommendations of its Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Myanmar. The report outlines serious human rights violations and abuses in Kachin, Shan, and Rakhine States. It recommends that six senior military figures be investigated for genocide against the Rohingya, including Myanmar’s armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and that the case be taken up by the International Criminal Court (ICC), or alternatively that an ad hoc international criminal tribunal be created. The report notes that “The role of social media is significant. Facebook has been a useful instrument for those seeking to spread hate, in a context where for most users Facebook is the Internet. Although improved in recent months, Facebook’s response has been slow and ineffective.” Facebook quickly responded to the report’s release by removing the accounts of eighteen high-profile army figures in Myanmar, including Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, and fifty-two Facebook pages, that had a combined total following of close to twelve million users.

A few days later, two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were sentenced to seven years in prison under the Official Secrets Act over accusations of holding secret government documents that they intended to share with international media and the ethnic armed group, Arakan Army. The two were arrested in December 2017 after investigating a massacre of Rohingya men and boys in the coastal town of Inn Din in northern Rakhine State. After responding to a call from police officers, who met them in a restaurant and handed them documents, the journalists were arrested for having the documents in their possession. As they were being taken away from the court after the sentencing, Wa Lone was quoted as saying, “We know we did nothing wrong. I have no fear. I believe in justice, democracy and freedom.” The arrest and subsequent sentencing was met with national and international condemnation, as was the rejection of their appeal in early 2019. At a public protest to call for their release, organizer Ei Ei Moe, from the pro-democracy youth movement Generation Wave, described their jailing as “blocking the eyes and blinding the ears of the public.” They have since been released under a presidential pardon which does not clear them of the charges.

These events underscore the complexities of Myanmar’s much lauded “transition.” Celebrated early on for the release of imprisoned journalists and the end of pre-publication censorship, hopes for increased freedom of expression and media freedom were tempered by the crackdown that followed. Much has happened in the media sector since the controversial elections in 2010 organized by the military junta and boycotted by Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD [National League for Democracy], including reforms to laws that had repressed the media for decades. Some argue that these changes are a continuation of the military government’s Seven Step Roadmap to Disciplined Democracy, announced in 2003. Laws on news media and publishing replaced older ones, allowing private owners to publish print dailies for the first time in five decades, despite enormous financial and resource challenges. Media outlets formerly in exile and in the country’s borderlands, including those that identify as ethnic media, were permitted to officially register and to set up offices in the country as early as 2012. Many are now disseminating content—including in historically banned ethnic languages—previously considered too critical and subject to censorship and criminal prosecution. Stop-gap reform measures intended to appease those critical of the on-going centralized control of the broadcast sector include two-year cooperation agreements between five Myanmar companies and the state-run MRTV that see each company operating as a content provider for one of MRTV’s digital free-to-air TV channels.

At a September 2018 public protest in Yangon held in solidarity with the imprisoned  Reuters journalists, poet Maung Saungkha donned a beige NLD jacket, topped it with a green military-style jacket, and proceeded to “hit” journalists covering the event with a rolled up copy of state-run newspaper, Kyemon. After the NLD’s landslide victory in the November 2015 general elections, and despite continued military control over key levers of government power, there were high expectations that the NLD and State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi would prioritize and nourish free media and free expression. This demonstration reflects the disappointment and anger of journalists and free expression advocates about these unmet expectations.

Assessments of the NLD’s performance thus far have been dismal. In May 2018, the writers and free expression network PEN Myanmar, along with eighteen of its civil society and free expression partners, gave the government a score of two out of sixty possible points for its second-year performance because of restrictive laws, defamation lawsuits and imprisonments, the regression in the digital free expression sphere, dominance of state and military-owned media, powerful joint-ventures between the state and its business cronies, and a generalized failure to prioritize media reform and free expression; the 2018 score was six points lower than the previous year.

The Telecommunications Law is one of the NLD’s weapons. Since 2013, the law has been used widely against online critics. According to Athan, a free expression NGO, as of 9 September 2018, 150 cases had been filed under this law, the vast majority since the NLD came to power. Although a coalition of  twenty-two civil society groups called for Section 66(d) of the law—which criminalizes expression—to be abolished, a revised version of the law passed by the Union parliament in August 2017 did not abolish 66(d) or decriminalize defamation. Journalists have also been arrested and charged under colonial-era laws such as the Unlawful Association Act and the Official Secrets Act.

State media have long been criticized for being government mouthpieces, a role they are continuing under the NLD with their focus on Aung San Suu Kyi and other top leaders, their avoidance of controversial topics or bad news, and their publishing of misinformation which, some say, is simply “better written propaganda” than under the military regime. In high profile cases, such as accusations of military crackdowns in northern Rakhine, state media also often bury the stories or opt to attack critics. This was very telling on 29 January 2017 when a senior member of the NLD team, the prominent Muslim lawyer and NLD legal advisor, Ko Ni, was shot dead at the Yangon International Airport upon his return from an official trip to Indonesia. Ko Ni was famed for his work as an advocate for constitutional and legal reforms and religious diversity. Private national media and netizens captured the grief and mourning of NLD party members, civil society activists, and ordinary citizens. In stark contrast, state media’s coverage was subdued, highlighting official news of events and meetings attended by Aung San Suu Kyi and then President Htin Kyaw, and burying news of the assassination and its aftermath on inside pages. According to critics, the NLD-led government was reluctant to draw attention to the deep divisions signaled by the assassination of a respected and beloved Muslim lawyer in what is officially and predominantly a Buddhist country. Two years later, the killers have not been brought to justice.

Soon after the assassination, Wirathu, the leader of the radical nationalist Buddhist organization Ma Ba Tha (Committee for the Protection of Nationality and Religion), congratulated Ko Ni’s killers on social media. When the award-winning investigative journalist Swe Win criticized his actions, also on social media, a high-ranking member of the Ma Ba Tha in Mandalay sued him for defamation. A separate case filed in Yangon was later dropped. Myanmar’s Ministry of Religious Affairs and Culture publicly defended the journalist, saying he had done nothing wrong, and Myanmar’s highest religious body, the State Sangha Maha Nayaka (Ma Ha Na), banned Wirathu from preaching publicly for one year, and then declared Ma Ba Tha illegal. The Ma Ba Tha complainant later petitioned the court to withdraw the charge, but the case nonetheless continued. In August 2017 the complainant was himself arrested after participating in anti-government protests in Mandalay. In June 2019 the lawsuit against Swe Win was dropped after the plaintiff’s witnesses repeatedly failed to show up for court. The assassination and the responses to it illustrate the complexity and contradictions of Myanmar’s ongoing political transition, and the role of media as sites for the playing out of power struggles and as active agents in their own right.

Myanmar Media in Transition: Legacies, Challenges and Change is a compilation of works by academics, journalists, writers, media development experts, trainers, and civil society activists that documents and theorizes changes in the media sector since the country’s political opening. It offers critical analyses and captures experiences on the ground, moving beyond the common research focus on media “systems” to instead focus on processes through which media are engaged as tools by key stakeholders and through which media act as agents themselves. The book also maps out the current state of media studies in Myanmar, and encourages continuing discussion of these vital issues.

Selected References

Brooten, L. and Verbruggen, Y. (2017) Producing the News: Reporting on Myanmar’s Rohingya Crisis. Journal of Contemporary Asia 47(3). DOI: 10.1080/00472336.2017.1303078

Lall, M. (2016). Understanding Reform in Myanmar: People and society in the wake of military rule. London: C. Hurst & Co.

McCargo, D. (2012). Partisan Polyvalence: Characterizing the Political Role of Asian Media. In Hallin, D.C. and Mancini, P. (Eds.) Comparing Media Systems Beyond the Western World (pp. 201-223). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nwe Nwe Aye. (2012). Role of the media in Myanmar: Can it be a watchdog for corruption? In Cheeseman, N., M. Skidmore and T. Wilson (Eds.) Myanmar’s Transition: Opening, Obstacles, and Opportunities (pp.186-203). ISEAS Publishing: Myanmar Update Series.

PEN Myanmar. (2018). Scorecard Assessing Freedom of Expression in Myanmar. https://pen-international.org/app/uploads/2018-Scorecard-ENG.pdf

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