Media in Myanmar worry that freedom is already slipping away


YANGON, Myanmar — When Mizzima moved its headquarters to Yangon last year from India, media watchers saw it as a sign that political reform in Myanmar was real.

For more than a decade, the media group has published hard-hitting coverage of military corruption and Myanmar’s dismal human rights record, and many saw its arrival as a bellwether of the regime’s tolerance.

Recent days, however, have brought growing industry concern about backsliding after the government sent a draft press law to the parliament March 4: It bears an unsettling resemblance to the draconian 1962 media law still in effect, which has long been used to jail, torture and harass journalists.


“If they go with this law, there will be big noises and confrontation again with the press,” Sein Win, Mizzima’s chief editor, said in a sparse office on the fourth floor of a high-rise apartment that has seen better days. “We don’t want to go back to that again.”

Media organizations here say the measure’s vague wording — submitted without consulting media industry leaders — opens journalists to abuse, as do provisions that include a six-month jail sentence for license violations and a ban on criticizing the military-drafted constitution.

In late January, the government also quietly established a committee staffed with members of the military and the Information and Home Affairs ministries to oversee journalists.

“That’s two strikes against them,” said Shawn Crispin, the Bangkok, Thailand-based Asia representative of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, a watchdog group. “Seemingly, authorities have gotten cold feet on what it would mean to have a free and open press.”

Another media group, Reporters Without Borders, ranked Myanmar 151 out of 179 countries in its 2013 Press Freedom Index.

Political analysts say the nominally civilian government elected in 2011, which is still controlled by the military, is afraid of losing control. After a honeymoon period of glowing coverage of its release of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, more open policies and freed political prisoners, the government is facing increasingly negative reports about ethnic conflict, corruption and land grabs.


And although President Thein Sein recently held the first government news conference in decades and newly elected Information Minister Aung Kyi appears relatively open-minded, critics say officials are finding it difficult to alter their mind-set after decades of absolute power and censorship.

“The Ministry of Information understands it has to change its image,” said Ye Naing Moe, director of the Yangon Journalism School, who has conducted media training courses for officials in the capital, Naypyidaw. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not still running the show.”

Perhaps most striking in these courses, he said, is a near-complete lack of basic news understanding among officials overseeing the media.

“I had to start with ‘What is news?’” he said. “For them, news means a sheet from bureaucrats you’re told to publish.”

One trainee asked Ye Naing Moe what would happen to society if independent news media were allowed. The official registered near-disbelief at his response: You’d be able to read seven newspaper versions, not just one.

“It’s a bit like Chicken Little thinking the sky is falling in,” Ye Naing Moe said. “I tried to encourage them to come out of their cave.”


Another challenge for the government is transforming its long-standing state-run mouthpieces into “public service” media that people want to read or watch.

A trainer who recently worked at the government’s MRTV network said passivity among the technologically challenged staff members was deep-seated after decades of being told what to do. “They still write scripts out by hand!” he said.

At the New Light of Myanmar newspaper — once nicknamed the New Lies of Myanmar — the government has introduced advertising and color production and has tried to shake up coverage, which traditionally has featured articles such as “Lost air conditioner found in paddy field” and “Religious Affairs minister deals with religious matters.”

But some are skeptical. “Forget about the central government, they don’t even dare touch local issues,” said editor Sein Win. “How can they ever be ‘public service’?”

It isn’t just the government that’s finding its feet, however. Companies are also grappling with rapid change after decades of a sheltered existence. This month, the state has approved eight “temporary” licenses for private daily newspapers, something that’s been banned for decades.

That sparked a rapid expansion in an industry with little experience, critics say.

“We need more than freedom, we need professionalism,” said Ma Thida, executive editor of the Myanmar Independent News Journal, a private weekly. “Many editors don’t know how to edit, and no one cares about language. There are so many mistakes.”


Industry structure is also a concern. About 70% of the country’s print media is based in Yangon, much of it controlled by ex-military officials or their relatives, leaving little coverage in rural areas, where most Burmese live.

“Most journals are owned by tycoons and cronies, so I don’t have much faith in them,” said Ko Aung Soe, a farmer in Kankone, outside Mandalay. “I believe in true media, but there’s none around.”

At the offices of the recently opened House of Media & Entertainment multimedia group, founders U Zaw Thet Htwe and comedian Maung Thura “Zarganar,” both former political prisoners, say overt intimidation is being replaced by overly vague guidelines that can be used as authorities see fit. Guidelines issued in August warned against articles with “destructive views of state policy,” those “detrimental to international friendship” or any that might “frighten the public.”

There’s also widespread concern that the government could use defamation lawsuits — the mining ministry filed one last year before withdrawing it — in lieu of censorship, taking a cue from Singapore.

Zarganar and other editors said the industry was walking a fine line: It wants to be aggressive but worries that pushing too hard could return hard-liners to power before reforms are institutionalized.

“This is an opportune moment,” said Thiha Saw, editor of the weekly newspaper Open News. “But our concern: All these guys are former military generals. Is it real or is it just to attract international investment? We’re going to push reforms as far away from the old 1962 law as possible, so it’s hopefully beyond the point of no return.”