Myanmar: How Free is the Contemporary Media?

30 Jun, 2014    ·   4534

Aparupa Bhattacherjee provides an overview of the challenges faced by the country’s media

Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Aparupa Bhattacherjee
Research Officer

In April 2013, for the first time in Myanmar, private newspapers were displayed in the newspaper stalls along with the state-owned newspapers that had not been censored by the Junta. In August 2012, President Thein Sein had announced the removal of the official censorship of the media in Myanmar. Further, several journalists and bloggers who were arrested during the rule of the military Junta were released through political amnesty by the President. These changes have also been evident in the Free Press Index by the Reporters Without Borders: in 2010, Myanmar was ranked 174 out of 178 countries, whereas in 2013, it was ranked 151 out of 178. 

What is the state of the media in contemporary Myanmar? What are the changes that the media is looking forward to?

A Difficult Path
The removal of censorship in Myanmar has opened new avenues for several private media houses. However, there are still several hurdles that the media has to overcome. Although, according to government records, there are twelve private ‘daily’ newspapers, if the weekly papers and journals in both English and Burmese are taken into account, the number is huge. This has increased the competition in both the online and print media. Most of the newspapers are not well-equipped to cope in a competitive market. They lack in reporting capacity, distribution channels, legal protections, experienced business management and the concurrent growth of advertising revenues. The situation is worse for the daily newspapers in comparison to the weeklies.
Most of the newspapers (except for Eleven Media House and Yangon Times) do not have in-house printing. Furthermore, due to the slow internet connections, all the material is delivered to the printer by hand, which only delays the process. The media houses not only have a dearth of professional trained journalists to meet the needs of daily reporting but also lack sufficient funds to sustain the expensive daily printing. Most of the media houses in Myanmar are financially dependent on either the profit from the other business of the owner or foreign sponsors. Unlike media houses in other parts of the world, those in Myanmar lack shareholders in the business. Underdeveloped infrastructure and expensive transportation have hindered the distribution channels. The distribution per day in Myanmar ranges from 10,000 to 30,000 approximately. Due to expensive printing costs and taxes, the rates for the private daily newspapers (200-500 Kyats) are higher than the state-owned ones. Apart from the state-owned newspapers, most of the readers also prefer journals as they are thicker and are therefore considered cost effective. All these issues affect the profit margin, which is nil for most of the private newspapers.

Additionally, the fact that the new government of Myanmar (after 48 years of authoritarian rule) is not well adapted to dealing with a free media presence in the country makes the struggle more difficult. The innate governmental control over the media still persists in the country. The legitimacy of the private media houses depends on licences provided by the government. The newly drafted media bill that outlines the print and publisher registrations is contradictory to media freedom. This will be similar to the 1962 law that it will replace, and will allow the government to issue or revoke licenses for any reason and prohibit a publication that is thought to endanger national security, the rule of law or community peace and tranquility. However, the criteria on which the licenses are provided by the government are not yet transparent. Although the publications are not censored officially, all editors have to install self-censorship. The government cannot be criticised negatively. Further, although the Press Security and Registration Division (PSRD) of the Junta period was disbanded, it has been replaced with the Copyrights and Registration Division that scans through all the media output.

Although several social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, and the website of the opposition political parties are allowed, the restrictions still persist. Laws such as the 2004 Electronic Transaction Law, Internet Law of 2000 and others restricting the electronic media will continue to exist until new laws are formulated.

Looking Forward
There are efforts on behalf of the government to increase transparency on the drafting of the media laws. The laws are being drafted by the Interim Council of Press comprising of many editors and journalists along with the government. There are plans to install a central banking structure in Myanmar; once installed it will incentivise more shareholders and international advertising agencies to open ventures with the private media houses, thereby increasing their revenue earning. Furthermore, the government has already reduced internet installation charges from 600,000 Kyats to 50,000 Kyats, and the monthly fees have been reduced from 30,000 Kyats to 17,000 Kyats. This will enable easier and cheaper internet access to at least for some sections of society. There are several international actors, such Australia, who are working towards improving internet services in Myanmar, which would be a big relief for the media houses. Others, such as the Norwegian Telenor company, has promised to introduce a much cheaper telephone service in Myanmar; Ooredoo, a Qatar-based firm, in collaboration with Samsung, is working towards providing cheaper internet service in Myanmar. All these promises will bring about positive changes in the country and reduce the struggle that the media houses are currently facing.