A year after the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, 300 Myanmar journalists, politicians and experts gathered in Yangon to discuss challenges to the country’s media sector. Patrick Benning reports.
Although Myamar's media landscape is still young, the country's annual Media Development Conference has quickly become an institution. Now in its fifth year, the conference offers media workers, politicians and media experts a chance to get together, get a sense of what is happening in the industry and get down to some straight talking.
There was ample reason for this at the November 2016 conference. The landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) the year before raised hopes in Myanmar that the state would reduce its involvement in the media sector, leading to greater press freedoms and increased freedom of expression.
"We're still waiting for the first part," said Thiha Saw, director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI). In his opening speech at the conference, he criticized the NLD for changing its views on media policy since coming to power. During the election campaign, Suu Kyi had said the country's Information Ministry was "unnecessary" for democracy, Thiha Saw pointed out, but the ministry still exists. As does the state media, which continues to trumpet government successes, only now the media applauds the new government instead of the old.
Myanmar's new information minister, Pe Myint, who before assuming the position earlier in 2016 was a writer, publisher and a member of the press council, took an opposing stance, asserting that the government required "a channel of its own" to communicate with the people.
Obstacles to reporting
Local media are also worried about press freedom. Although the right to information is high on the government's agenda and a corresponding law is already in the making, it became clear at a panel discussion that a law alone will not overcome the resistance of authorities, government ministries, police and the military to speak with the media.
"Many state officials believe that written press statements are enough," criticized press council member, Myint Kyaw. Information requests are not encouraged, he said, although this is slowly starting to change in Yangon, the country's largest city, and in the capital, Naypyidaw. Journalists in the provinces, however, are rarely given information.
This is especially true for journalists wanting to report from conflict regions involving the Myanmar military and insurgent groups. One journalist at the conference described with remarkable detachment his experiences of a research trip where "undesirable" incidents ranged from hostility from the communities being visited to harassment at military posts and precautionary detention by police.
Press officers from Myanmar's armed forces, who were represented at the conference for the first time, fended off this account, emphasizing that for the sake of security, it was in a journalist's best interests to work with local authorities.
Many of those attending the session liked the idea of the army helping make journalist's work more secure. In reality, however, the notion that Myanmar's army could support journalists in actually covering conflict or even train them for this purpose, seemed utopian. On the positive side, the military's attendance at the conference indicated that it is starting to consider its public image.
"More local journalism"
Myanmar adopted a new broadcast law in August 2015 and discussions on applying it to the communal, primarily ethnic-based media sector, as well as on the growing impact of social media (primarily Facebook), have been underway ever since.
Concerns about hate speech and the political instrumentalization of the media continue to raise fears, including among the new state leadership which has otherwise clearly been calling for a community broadcasting sector.
The 2015 broadcast law clearly encourages the establishment of this new type of media. Using low power transmission - and thus only covering limited areas - its strength lies in enabling local communities to exchange information in their local languages. A community media sector is close to being launched, with support from a DW Akademie pilot project.
Enthusiasts of these developments include DW Akademie's communications expert, Per Oesterlund. "Myanmar needs much more local journalism," he says, convinced that national providers will not be able to cover the information needs of Myanmar's 135 ethnic groups, who speak more than 100 languages and dialects.
To date, only a few local media are working in minority languages. Some are hoping to improve business given the broadcasting licenses, others are aiming for direct government subsidies. Oesterlund, however, recommends that they start working together. This, he says, will be the only way for them to assert political demands and access financial resources.
A new DW Akademie project is helping them establish long-term cooperation between local media and the national broadcaster, MRTV. The focus will be on exchanging digital content via a joint web portal, giving those participating both journalistic and financial advantages.
Need for more leverage for female media workers
According to a study by Sweden's Fojo Media Institute, many more women in Myanmar work in the media field than men but women reach far fewer executive positions and are given fewer external research assignments."As a woman, I had to sign a document saying I would be responsible for whatever happened to me when out on assignment. Men are not required to do this," emphasized Daw Eaint Khine Oo, speaking on a panel about gender equality. The panel was made up only of women because no men were interested in being panelists for the session.
Men in the audience remained skeptical; one claimed that women preferred to work in the editorial office. The women were outraged, with one responding that if women could raise children in Myanmar's conflict areas, which they are doing, they were just as able to report from there.
Straight talk like this reflects developments and raises hopes. Those working in the media sector are now being approached by those who need the media, including business people, lawyers, police officers, civil servants and even soldiers. Although differences are not always resolved, taboos are being broken and important questions asked.
New institutes have been established over the past five years, such as media networks, interest groups, press offices, educational institutions and a media council. Now it's up to people to make these organizations work for them.
Patrick Benning is DW Akademie's acting country manager for Myanmar and has worked in the country over the last four years, overseeing DW Akademie's contribution to the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI) as well as a pilot project for community media. His current responsibilities also include a consulting project with the Myanmar Press Council and the state broadcaster, Myanma Radio and Television (MRTV).