Having paved the way for freedom of the press with a new media law passed last year, the south-east Asian nation took a further step with the establishment of a permanent body to ensure ethical standards in the media.
In a crowded hotel in Yangon, Myanmar's former capital and the hotspot of the country's emerging media sector, more than 100 people gathered on Wednesday, October 21, as members of the new Press Council were announced to the public. Six members were elected as part of the official ceremony, with dozens of cameras flashing as nominees from writers associations and printing and publishing groups, as well as individual candidates, cast their votes.
Eighteen additional new members were also announced; the majority had already been appointed by media related associations, while others had been chosen by the president, parliament and civil society groups.
Challenges on the road to media freedom
The initial Myanmar Press Council (Interim), was formed in 2012 as a temporary self-regulatory council working towards the establishment of a permanent body. DW Akademie has been supporting this process since early 2014.
U Kyaw Min Swe, the outgoing Secretary of the interim press council, called the establishment of a permanent self-regulatory body a historic move for freedom of the press in Myanmar. The interim council had already achieved much towards this, he said, but had also faced challenges. "Many of the people we were negotiating with had no experience of this kind of free media we are trying to develop," he said. Until elections in 2011 saw a nominally civilian government take power, Myanmar was ruled by a military junta for almost half a century, and strict censorship was in place.
The interim press council had also faced criticism from some media groups, said U Kyaw Min Swe. There were concerns that the temporary body was working too closely with the government. The outgoing Secretary took the opportunity to assure critics that the interim press council had always acted honestly, sincerely and in accordance with the law in order to promote and develop media freedom in Myanmar. He pointed out that in many countries press councils, as public bodies, are partially government-funded but are still able to handle complaints without government interference.
Passion for journalistic standards
With some media representatives choosing not to vote in Wednesday's election ceremony due to disagreements about how the new statutory press council will be run, other challenges remain. Some positions, such as those reserved for representatives of the country's poets and cartoonists, were left unfilled due to a lack of candidates. But among the 24 members of the new council there was a clear conviction that the establishment of the permanent body is a historic move for press freedom and ethical standards in the country's media sector.
U Ohn Kyaing, one of the two independent candidates elected to the council on Wednesday, said he had been a journalist since 1945. At that time, he pointed out, there had been a brief period when he was able to write critically about the government. When a military junta took over in 1962, however, censorship tightened and critical journalism became impossible. "Now I can write again," said the 86 year old. "I'm happy to die writing as a news journalist and to contribute to the Press Council's work."
Fellow independent candidate U Tin Tun also gave a moving speech, the arrangement of lilies on the lectern shaking as he waved a copy of the constitution and pointed to the new laws stipulating press freedom.
An opportunity for the future
For DW Akademie's Country Representative for Myanmar, Isabella Kurkowski, Wednesday's elections were not only a vital move for the future of Myanmar's media sector, but also a triumph for the Myanmar Press Council (Interim). "Its activities as a media watchdog have been instrumental for the evolution of media freedom in Myanmar," she said. Two members of the interim press council have now been appointed to the permanent body, she said, and three others are now representatives of various journalists associations. This, she said, spoke for their achievements, adding that it was essential for ensuring that the experience and knowledge gained by the temporary body is preserved.
Kurkowski said the new permanent press council could contribute to stable and consistent press freedoms in Myanmar. "This is especially significant in the rapidly evolving media landscape and will pave the way for upcoming media legislative developments," she said.
Protecting press freedom
Through the newly established press council, individuals will be able to make official complaints regarding ethically questionable or discriminatory media coverage. The council will also be responsible for ensuring that professional ethical standards in journalism are further developed and upheld.
The outgoing chairman of the interim council's Complaints Commission, U Pe Myint, is a member of the new body and said that despite developments towards press freedom in Myanmar, challenges for the country's media sector remained. "Even though we have freedom of the press now, this can also lead to other problems," he pointed out. "After years of censorship, we need to protect the freedom we now have." That's one responsibility the members of the new press council are ready to take on, and is something which convinced U Pe Myint, as well as many others, to accept their appointments to the council. "We still have a lot to achieve in the media," he said. "I would like to be involved in helping to do that."