Myanmar's media finding its feet in new landscape

Journalist protesting, journalists in jail, a prominent newspaper apologising for a cartoon critical of the military, and a major media website hacked.

Since 2013, Myanmar's media has been enjoying its first taste of freedom in decades, but that means it has also challenged and grated against authority and competition.

The Myanmar Times' apology last week for publishing a cartoon critical of the army's record of grabbing land - a huge issue in the country - reflected the reality that the army is still very much the power behind a veneer of civilian rule.

Much is at stake in Myanmar's general election at the end of the year, the first in five decades to take place in a rambustious and relatively free media environment. A partisan media, some controlled by powerful vested interests, will only raise political temperatures further.

The government controls most of the broadcast media. It has its own publication, the English Global New Light Of Myanmar, and the local language version, Myanma Alinn.

The army's Myawaddy Media runs a TV channel and an FM radio station, and puts out a daily newspaper and a monthly journal.

The Ministry of Information owns the daily Kyemon (The Mirror), once a leading independent journal during Myanmar's experiment with parliamentary democracy and free media between 1948 and 1962.

The ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party has its own daily newspaper, The Union. The opposition National League for Democracy has the weekly D-Wave.

In the free-for-all landscape, prejudices are also aired. Some papers have been against the Muslim minority in Rakhine state, for instance.

For the private media, the proliferation has brought problems. There are currently about 4,000 working journalists in Myanmar, estimates Mr Thiha Saw, a veteran editor now working at the Myanmar Times.

Journalists have had to face intimidation and legal harassment. Controversially, there are perhaps a dozen journalists in jail, after having run foul of the government's laws.

"There is a great need for training; we have very few training facilities," said Mr Thiha Saw. "We are concerned now about election reporting, and are holding training workshops for journalists on guidelines for the election."

Ms Gwen Robinson, a senior fellow at the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok's Chulalongkorn University and also a senior editor who focuses on Myanmar, said:

"Myanmar went from an information desert to a vibrant, intensely competitive media environment.

"This encouraged a lot of what could only be called speculative and often sensationalist journalism." Allegations were made with no evidence, and personal vendettas seemed to surface in the media.

But at the same time, there were media organisations bravely investigating issues and reporting on corruption and government incompetence, she added.

"Things will undoubtedly settle and Myanmar will develop a real culture of responsible journalism," she said.

Said Ms Gayathry Venkiteswaran, the Bangkok-based executive director of South-east Asian Press Alliance, an organisation for press freedom: "The government will use whatever means possible to pressure the media to weaken them.

"In a country where resources have been dominated by those close to the regime, we can speculate that it will be the cronies who will take control of the media."

The partisanship of the media is not unusual, a senior Myanmar journalist, who asked not to be named, told The Straits Times in a phone interview. And the government would "never be happy with journalists critical of corruption, the judiciary and so forth".

But "while there will be some bad eggs, by and large the local media, with whatever little freedom they are given - and not as a right - are doing their job very well", the journalist said.

"The local media is stretching its muscles," Ms Venkiteswaran said. "The scales weigh in favour of the positive contributions made by the media, versus the lapses in ethical or professional conduct that are often thrown against them to justify arrests and actions by the government."

This article was first published on April 11, 2015.
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