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Media Development

Myanmar: How free is the press?

Myanmar's newspaper industry is booming thanks to a looser censorship and ownership regulations. DW Akademie and Germany's ARD public broadcaster invited experts to Berlin discuss the changing media landscape.

Myanmar is opening up. Since the new government of President U Thein Sein came to power in March 2011, the country has abolished press censorship and relaxed restrictions on privately owned newspapers. Although the media sector's explosive growth and dynamic changes present Myanmar journalists with new opportunities, the journalists are not sure to what extent they can trust them.

"Officially we now enjoy the same freedoms as many other journalists in the world," said Pe Myint, the chief editor and cofounder of the Myanmar publication, "Pyithu Khit" (The People's Age Journal). Pe Myint is also involved in the country's newly founded press council.

Panellists at the expert talk on media in Myanmar: Michael Lenz, Pe Myint, Florian Meesmann, Sandar Lwin (photo: Reiner Freese)

Panel of experts (from left to right): Sandar Lwin, Florian Meesmann, deputy chief editor of German public broadcaster MDR, Pe Myint, and Michael Lenz, freelance Southeast Asia correspondent

"But even if our articles no longer have to be approved by the authorities beforehand, we still face potential consequences after publication," Myint said during the DW Akademie and ARD discussion series, "Media International". He pointed out, however, that this had not yet happened.

Journalists were still wary of the Ministry of Information, agreed editor of the weekly "Myanmar Times", Sandar Lwin .

"So now we're practicing self-censorship instead and we're not fully exploiting our new freedoms," Lwin said. "The reform process is still in its early stages and it also depends on people’s previous experiences with the regime."

Mathis Winkler, head of DW Akademie's Eurasia division, recounted a visit to the Myanmar state broadcaster, Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV). In 2008 MRTV headquarters were moved to a remote town, several hours away from the former capital, Yangon. This was to enable the military junta to watch over MRTV staff more easily, and to safeguard the broadcaster from an external attack.

Mathis Winkler, head of DW Akademie's Eurasia division (photo: Reiner Freese).

Mathis Winkler, head of DW Akademie's Eurasia division

"The building is enormous and looks like an abandoned spaceship," Winkler said. "Most of the qualified journalists have returned to Yangon and the ones who remain are those who can't keep pace with the changes." For Winkler, this was symbolic of the challenges facing the country, and especially the media sector.

DW Akademie is supporting the establishment of a journalism school in Myanmar together with other national and international organizations. After the military junta came to power in 1962, journalists received little training.

The booming media sector now means there is a severe lack of media professionals. "I recently saw an advertisement for a newly established newspaper that was seeking 50 reporters," Winkler said.

Balanced reporting

Myanmar editor Myint only partly agreed that it was essential to improve training programs. "Certainly, quality journalism requires training, but you don't need training to have freedom of the press," he said.

However, he added that the new press freedoms were changing the mentality of journalists.

"Almost all political journalists are political activists which means our coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi and the democracy movement was always positive," he explained. "Still, our reporting has become more differentiated."

Sandar Lwin believed it was also important for journalists to report on Myanmar's ethnic conflicts in a more sensitive and balanced way. "As journalists, we have a certain responsibility," she said.

She was, however, skeptical about a growing foreign influence and that it didn't always have Myanmar's best interests at heart. She cited the example of the Chinese government which was now offering journalism training even though its own press wasn't particularly liberal.

"In terms of geopolitics, the Chinese are very interested in Myanmar," she said. "I believe the trainings are closely tied to that and I'm concerned that this could influence young journalists especially."

Sandar Lwin, editor of Myanmar Times (photo: Reiner Freese).

Sandar Lwin, editor of "Myanmar Times"

Even if journalists could now report freely, said Pe Myint, it was still difficult to get information. "Most government ministries don't release information despite requests," he pointed out, adding that there were also some obstacles when it came to reporting on the parliament.

"Although journalists are permitted to cover parliamentary meetings," said Sandar Lwin, "photos are not allowed."

DW Akademie's Mathis Winkler believed it was not just journalists who needed training, but also government officials. "The presidential spokesman is so far using his Facebook account to answer inquiries," Winkler said.

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