The newly-elected NLD Party has been keeping silent about its media strategy. But during a DW Akademie media dialogue in Yangon, the old and new governments for the first time announced their willingness to collaborate.
Former political foes meet publicly for the first time: U Tint Swe (left), currently still in office as the State Secretary for the Ministry of Information, and U Aung Shin, media expert for the new government
It was an appearance by a long-time supporter and trusted confidante of Aung San Suu Kyi. U Aung Shin, a member of the Central Committee of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the party's media expert, was a guest at DW Akademie's recent media dialogue, "Empowerment of Community Media, Gender Issues and Freedom of Expression" held at the end of January in Yangon. He made things clear right at the start of his speech: "I have discussed what I'm going to say today with Aung San Suu Kyi," he said, "and I can assure you that 'The Lady' regards community media as one of the priorities of her media policy."
This was admittedly a rather vague statement, but for a country in the midst of a dynamic transition, quite a significant one. It was the first time that a representative of the new government had spoken out publicly about his party's media strategy. And it was also the first time that representatives of the old and new governments publicly promised to collaborate on media reform.
Nearly five decades of military rule and civil conflict have left the Southeast Asian country deeply divided. The country's first free elections in 25 years were met with euphoria both in Myanmar and around the world, as well as with high expectations. At the end of March 2016 the NLD government will officially take over the reins of power and with it, responsibility for nothing less than political renewal and ultimately, the democratization of the country.
There has long been public speculation about the future role of the opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who is barred under the constitution from running for president. The allocation of ministry posts has also been shrouded in rumor. It is no secret that the majority of newly elected parliament members are political novices. This has observers both within and outside of the country wondering how, and when, the government will deliver its first results, and whether government action - including on freedom of the press and media development - will come to a standstill.
Laying the foundation for democracy
A nominally "civilian" government was installed in Myanmar in 2011, but for a long time its media policy in particular bore the hallmarks of the ex-military officials in charge. After a brief period of calm, 2014 saw a return to long prison sentences for journalists, and one reporter died under mysterious circumstances while in military custody.
But there have also been some extraordinary victories for media freedom, including an official end to media censorship. By the end of 2015, privately-owned newspapers, independent journalists' associations and a permanent press council had also become solid building blocks of the country's media system.
A new media law came into effect in August 2015, which not only allowed the establishment of private radio and TV stations but also the transformation of the state broadcaster MRTV into a public broadcaster. However, the implementation of the new law - a task allocated primarily to the ministry experts - runs the risk of being stalled by the transition of power.
Given NLD's silence over the past weeks the rumor mill has been churning. There are questions as to who is in fact making the decisions, whether the media and civil society will be allowed to contribute to the debate on reforms, and whether the laws of the outgoing government will be respected.
Future media legislation
Since 2013, and with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), DW Akademie has supported the reform of the state broadcaster MRTV and helped establish a permanent press council as well as the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI), which was officially registered in 2015. In line with the basic right of access to information, DW Akademie has also been active in developing community media.
Myanmar is home to 135 official ethnic groups speaking 100 different languages, and until 2012 the vast majority had no access to news. The military government deliberately prevented the development of local media, fearing that armed groups based in the countryside might use them for propaganda purposes.
In this current reform phase, however, community media could give ethnic minorities a voice and greater involvement in the political process. As a response to this, DW Akademie has developed a pilot project for community media that is waiting and ready to go.
Community media and rural development
DW Akademie's media dialogue came at the right time, offering 40 participants from the media world - among them journalists, media owners, media lawyers, civil rights activists and international media development organizations - a forum for discussion. For Patrick Benning, who is in charge of DW Akademie's community media projects in Myanmar, the dialogue was an opportunity to draw the government's attention to this type of media. "At least five of the speakers repeatedly called out 'Don't try to stop community media!'" said a delighted Benning after the event. In his closing statement Benning directly addressed the NLD representative saying, "We all hope that you will pass this message on."
There were other memorable moments at the event. Two representatives of the old and new governments sat across from each other at the conference table and their biographies couldn't have been more different. U Tint Swe, the incumbent director general of Myanmar's Ministry of Information, headed the state censorship office until 2012. U Aung Shin, the new man for the NLD, spent years incarcerated as a political prisoner and is today editor-in-chief of the NLD's party newspaper. At the media dialogue, the two men promised to work together to effect a speedy implementation of Myanmar's media reforms.
Hosting the dialogue was Ute Schaeffer, head of DW Akademie's Media Development division. She praised the two parties for their political pragmatism and determination to meet future challenges. "It is extraordinary," she said, "that a country that has never experienced a peaceful transition of power can demonstrate that is possible to work effectively together during the transition phase."
Isabella Kurkowski, DW Akademie's representative in Myanmar, was also pleased with the event. "U Aung Shin pointed out that community media will need a code of ethics and that the new government will be discussing this with the Press Council," she said. "We're proud to see how the institutions that we developed together with local journalists, ministries and media representatives, are now joining forces and being taken seriously by the new government." Some doubts remain, however, with respect to the speedy implementation of the media law. "The new government has announced plans to merge certain ministries, and that will likely include the Ministry of Information," Kurkowski said. "If this happens we're concerned that this could delay procedures associated with media legislation."