Written by Julia Traunspurger

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  • Area: 676,577 square kilometres
  • Population: approx. 51 Mil.
  • Capital: Nay Pyi Taw
  • State form: unitary parliamentary constitutional republic
  • Official language: Burmese
  • Religion: Theravada-Buddhism (89 %), Muslims (4 %, 2016)

  • Flag of Myanmar

    Since 2008 Myanmar is going through a huge social, political and economical transitional process that heavily influenced the legal system, the educational system, and civil society. After decades of a military-ruled government and being international isolated, Myanmar opened up for economical reasons but also making commitments to the liberalization of the media system. Even though the abolishment of prior-censorship was a mile stone to more media freedom, there are still some old draconian laws that can be used to punish and imprison journalists for different reasons. National security, topics concerning the military and government criticism are still sensitive issues. The government maintains its power to regulate the media market with new media laws regarding the licensing process, ownership structures and unfair financial setups for non-state owned media. State-owned newspapers and broadcasters dominate media offers and media use. Journalists are practicing self-censorship due to the uncertain legal situation and an increasing social pressure on topics relating to minorities. Additionally, there are only few training possibilities leading to low quality.
    Communication policy and regulations
    Myanmar is going through a huge social, political and economic transition process. This “top down” democratization started in 2008. After a long time of military-ruled government a “roadmap to democracy” was initiated. Strictly guided by the former military government, Myanmar implemented a partial liberalization of the political system. The media landscape was also affected by this liberalization. “The Myanmar government’s reforms were arguably jump-started by the chafing dominance of China over the country’s economic development in recent years and the generals’ need to placate Western concerns to counterbalance China’s influence” (Brooten, 2016: 189). Before the democratization, Myanmar’s government completely controlled the media by harsh censorship and draconian laws since 1962 (Hudson-Rodd, 2008: 95). Together with the political transitions, reforms in media law have occurred towards a more civilian-led democratic state. However, some old laws are still enacted and the military has not given up all of its power on media control or political influence. For example, one-third of the parliament seats must still be reserved to military (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 17). After the first free elections in November 2015 many pinned a lot of hope on the Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party NLD (National League for Democracy). However, this hope was disappointed as people are still getting arrested and punished for different reasons mainly criticizing the new government or military (McPherson, 2017). Myanmar is ranked 143 in the World Press Freedom Index and Freedom House (2016) classified it as “not free” due to old and still active laws and punishment, harassment and threats of the military, police, and religious groups or people.

    Legal Environment
    The liberalization process in the media landscape started in 2000 with the permission to establish privately owned weekly newspapers. The next step was the annulation of pre-censorship for selected media in June 2011, for all media in August 2012 and the granting of licenses for the publication of privately owned daily newspapers starting in April 2013. Additionally, in September 2012 the Interim Myanmar Press Council (MPC) was established to improve the situation for journalists and to draft new media laws. MPC adopted a Code of Conduct (COC) in 2014 and “served as an industry wide grievance mechanism for violations of the News Media Law and COC” (UNESOC & IMS, 2016: 20). However, journalists criticized that the government intervention in the formation of the MPC prevented the real formation of a self-regulatory press council (Harris, 2015: 8). Therefore, it was elected and replaced by the Myanmar News Media Council (MNMC) in October 2015 as the permanent, self-regulatory body for media industry (Brooten, 2016: 184; Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 38, 45; UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 17, 20).
    With the Telecommunications Law in 2013 the telecommunication industry was privatized which led to a rapid expansion in mobile phone penetration and internet access in the country as well as to the emergence of three new national telecommunication providers (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 23). However, even under the new administration the law was also used to sanction undesired behavior: “At least 38 people have been charged with online defamation since April (2016), most under the notorious Article 66D of the Telecommunications Law. Although the legislation was created by the previous military-backed administration to cover the booming telecoms sector, between 2013 and 2015, it was used just seven times” (McPherson, 2017).
    Two new press laws were established in March 2014. First, the News Media Law which provides higher quality standards in the media system by the establishment of a system of self-regulation. The law was the foundation for the MPC and the adoption of a COC. Second, the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law (PPEL) which should provide a more diverse print media environment. “The law formally abolished the act of prior-censorship and replaced the licensing of print media with a registration process” (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 19). However, because of this law, print media must still register with the Ministry of Information (MoI). Critics dislike the fact that the MoI still kept the power to revoke, grant or withhold publishing licenses (Article 19, 2014). It also gave the government again the right to ban reporting that is harmful to “national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility” that violates the constitution or offenses religion (Freedom House, 2016a). Another shortcoming is that the PPEL does neither protect nor recognize press freedom and freedom of expression (Brooten, 2016: 186). Therefore, the PPEL is often compared to its 1962 predecessor and some say it is a counterbalance to the liberalizing Press Law: “What is clear is that former military generals are seen to be the driving force behind the law and that they disagree with the Press Council’s liberalizing Press Law” (Harris, 2015: 9-10).
    The broadcasting sector was regulated by the new Broadcasting Law adopted in August 2015. It provides the establishment of a National Broadcasting Council, “which will be tasked with licensing broadcasters and adopting a Broadcast Code of Conduct” (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 17). In addition to the state broadcaster (MRTV – Myanmar Radio and Television), the new law will allow the licensing of private, public and community broadcasters. However, it is criticized for the maintenance of presidential control over the sector and it is assumed that the Broadcasting Council is susceptible to political interference (Freedom House, 2016a).

    Potential legal threats to media freedom
    Despite all improvements in the ongoing transition process, there are still some legal threats to media freedom. One of the main points of criticism is the lack of freedom of information law and that freedom of expression is not adequately assured by the constitution (Freedom House, 2016a; UNESCO & ISM, 2016: 17).
    Because of the ongoing transitional process and sometimes unclear legal environment, antiquated laws have been used to silence both the media and civil society on certain sensitive issues (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 18). The most important operative laws restricting the media industry are:
    • The 1923 Official Secret Act, established by the British to punish persons who could be a perceived threat to the state.
    • The 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which bans content that would “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order.”
    • The 2004 Electronics Transactions Law “prohibits the electronic transfer of information liable to undermine national security, including communications about cultural or economic affairs, and has been used to imprison journalists” (Freedom House, 2016a).
    • The 2013 Telecommunications Law, which again allows the government to intercept information that threatens national security.
    To sum up, all old and new laws can be used to restrict media freedom and journalists’ autonomy due to their undefined concept of what national security or national interest is (Radue and Bullerdieck, 2015: 46; UNESCO, 2016: 18; Freedom House, 2016a). According to Reporters Without Borders (2017), 178 journalists, 157 netizens and 12 media assistants are still imprisoned.

    Trade Unions
    Despite politics, civil society is “at an embryonic stage so media monitoring and media literacy are not yet widespread” (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 23). However, in terms of professional associations as trade unions Myanmar has three large journalist associations: The Myanmar Journalists Network (MJN), the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA) and the Myanmar Journalists Union (MJU). Although their influence and status should not be compared to traditional trade unions, they can be described as membership-based professional associations to support the interests of the media industry (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 22-23).
    Media offers
    Before the military regime slowly started the transition, it tried to control all ownership structures and access to Myanmar’s media. Broadcasting and all daily newspapers were either directly or indirectly controlled by the regime through private concessions. (Brooten, 2016: 185).

    Ownership and Offers
    This historically high degree of state involvement in the media is still present and has led to a high level of ownership concentration. The state has largely monopolized the infrastructure for distribution and production of broadcasting and print media. Therefore, only people with significant resources or close ties to the government or the military can compete in the commercial market (Thu, 2012; Freedom House, 2016a; UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 18). The established media outlets have a strong advantage because of “their financial and organisational set up, their level of profile and their established, government-owned distribution channels” (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 41). Because of the relatively new freedom, there is no dominance of only a few or even one media mogul. In contrary, one interviewee pointed out that the media market is growing really fast and everyone who can afford it starts to get involved: “Right now it is very popular to own a media outlet – it is considered fashionable.”
    The ownership structures also have a strong impact on media offer and media content showing again the strong entanglement between the media market and politics (Brooten, 2016: 39). Even though state media is seen factually accurate it is considered to be editorially biased. Content tends to show activities of the government in a positive light. Also, some privately owned media “have been known to promote the political or economic interests of those close to or within government” (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 21). However, there are also some private media that show a strong opposite by publishing sensationalist content with an anti-government bias. Those are sometimes criticized for favoring profits over factual accuracy (ibid.). Ethnic minorities are underrepresented in the mainstream media and even though women are well represented in terms of staffing only a few make it to senior positions. Additionally, women do often cover only “soft subjects” such as entertainment, beauty and popular news (ibid.: 20).

    After the removal of prior-censorship and the launch of privately owned newspapers and dailies the press market boomed. Still, privately owned press has some problems in evolving due to the unfair licensing process and the high fees. Those fees only “went to politically corrupt individuals who were close to higher authorities, and government ministries that sought funding by publishing the papers or hiring out licenses to private publishers” (Thu, 2012: 22). Therefore, many of the daily newspapers launching in 2014 have already gone out of business. The two largest state-owned print media houses are Myanma Alinn and The Mirror. They enjoy a number of competitive advantages in terms of circulation, wide distribution networks and government funded operating budgets. Because of the circulation “nearly all of the government’s advertisements are placed in state-owned print media. Private companies also prefer to advertise in the state-owned print media because of its superior circulation. This represents a forgone source of income to private print media and further entrenches the dominant market position of state media” (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 19). However, there is a plan to transform the state-run newspapers New Light of Myanmar, The Mirror and The Yadanabon – into public service media with editorial independence, but this has not been implemented yet (Harris, 2015: 11).
    The so-called journals (weekly newspapers) became the public’s favorites (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 43). Leading private weekly journals are: Weekly Eleven, First Eleven, 7 Days News Journal, In Arr, Premier Eleven, The Voice, Kumudra (Modern), Flower News and The Myanmar Times (Thu 2012: 22). The Myanmar Times plays a special role because it was the first publication financed by foreign capital as a joint venture between the Australian Ross Dunkley and U Sonny Swe, who is the son of an influential military member (Thu, 2012: 23). Because of its foreign capital Myanmar Times can express moderate criticism of the government (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 44).
    Another type of press that has to be regarded separately are the exile media. Before the democratic transition began, exile media was the only source for alternative news. Most were founded after the massive uprising of 1988 in which thousands were killed by the military and many fled to the countries border. At this time and near the borders “they formed new alliances with the ethnic minority groups fighting the regime” (Brooten, 2016: 185). One of the outcomes were alternative media offers such as the print publications The Irrawaddy and Mizzima and the broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). All of them were regarded illegal by the government. Now these offers have become less important. However, they are still considered as a “key influence in the ongoing cultural transformation as these groups move back inside” (ibid: 186) and their return to the country is still handled with caution because of their uncertain legal situation (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 51).
    In general, the circulation of print media remains limited due to poor transport infrastructure, high levels of poverty and poor distribution networks. That means that print media is mainly accessible in urban areas. Consequently, for news the majority of the rural population is dependent upon radio and TV (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 24; Freedom House, 2016a).

    “In contrast to the liberalisation processes in the print media market, the political opening up has hitherto hardly influenced the broadcasting market” (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2016: 46). Yet, most of the Myanmarese watch broadcast outlets for news even though it is controlled by the state. The state broadcaster MRTV (Myanmar Radio and Television) has launched both TV and radios that air news in all major ethnic languages and have the widest distribution all over the country. The new broadcasting law promises to permit diversified media ownership and the transition of MRTV into a public broadcaster (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 19). However, until now six public television stations are available: one is controlled by the army forces and five are under the control of the Ministry of Information. The eight domestic FM radios are also controlled by the state or by allies of the government. Voice of America and Radio Free Asia are transmitted from abroad and are accessible and highly popular. Many Myanmarese viewers install receivers illegally because of the high costs of the monthly subscription fees to access satellite televisions (Freedom House, 2016a; Thu, 2012: 24-25). There are about 16 radio channels that are privately owned. But the business owners have close ties to the government and concentrate on low-cost content, non-political issues and advertisement (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 46). In many interviews, radio was considered the medium and news source with the widest reach due the broad access to radio stations. However, content tends to stay partial and non-political because of the tendency to report soft news and the focus on primary entertainment, movies, travel and sports news (Thu, 2012: 24-25).

    Myanmar has internet access since 2000 and an increasing number of users. This development goes hand in hand with the growing use of smartphones, which are becoming more affordable. But still the internet penetration is quite low – ranking among the world’s lowest – and access is difficult due to poor service providers and sometimes high cost. Connection quality is better in urban areas again making a divide in the media use between city and countryside. Furthermore, “military conglomerates are still positioned to benefit from the system and manipulate the telecommunications market” (Freedom House, 2016b). During the military government, the internet has played a growing role as communication and information tool and for the beginning of the opening-up process especially for further sensitive (political) topics (Radue & Bullerdieck, 2015: 52). Now journalists “use the internet to report, network, and lobby for greater press freedom (…) many government ministers, celebrities, journalists, and various public figures now have their own Facebook pages, where comments and discussions at times become sources for mainstream media news” (Brooten, 2016: 186). Besides the positive effects, there has also been a proliferation of hate speech in Myanmar, especially in social media. After the Buddhist-Muslim violence that broke out in June 2012, “the demonization of Muslim Rohingyas by state run and some private media reflects the ‘us-versus-them rhetoric’ of the Buddhist nationalist monks” (Brooten, 2016: 186). This rhetoric has been much worse on Facebook making the social network site a place for provoking, racial slurs and incitements for violence.
    Journalists' autonomy
    Salary education and working conditions
    “The media in Burma is currently dominated by young, untrained journalists with an average age of 25” (Harris, 2015: 9). This low degree of professionalism is the result of few training and education possibilities not only today but over the last decades. Myanmar Journalists Institute (MJI) estimates 4,000 journalists in Myanmar not including journalists from state-owned media and other media workers (UNESCO & IMS, 2016: 21). Most of the journalists are not trained or have studied other disciplines (e.g. often medicine or economy). Only the National Management College (NMC)is offering an academic degree in a media related field. Another training possibility is the MJI, which is not a traditional academic institution but still provides students a one-year diploma in multimedia. In the UNESCO report,four main problems are named:
    • Most journalists cannot afford to pay much for the training and most media houses do not have the budget to pay for it.
    • Many trainings are located in Yangon, the capital city. Size and poor infrastructure make access to this training hard for journalists from other parts of the country.
    • The majority of the trainings are in English or Burmese. This could be a barrier for journalists coming from an ethnic minority group speaking another language.
    • Most of the trainings are financed and/or offered by international organisations and cannot be considered fully unbiased (2016: 22).
    Additionally, only a few years ago studying at NMC was still considered to be “doctrinaire”. Therefore, many people have the opinion, that standards for good journalism can only be found in exile media or international media organisations (Linnarz, 2013).
    It is difficult to find facts on the payment situation due to the fast changing situation and the overall poor economic situation. As people are better paid in big media companies, it is hard for new start-up companies to survive and getting motivated well-trained journalists.

    Role of the media
    In the expert interviews, the role of the journalists was to give information rather than to be a watchdog or opinion leader. Being a journalist is only considered as a job – and not to build a political platform or to give detailed background report. Journalists and media do not want to be involved in political decision making. In the interviews, it was claimed that civil society does not understand the rational behind good journalism or a free press due to decades of a biased and controlled media landscape. The long absence of ethical standards would have led to a testing of boundaries. At the beginning of the new era, Myanmar faced a huge problem with hate speech in traditional and online media (see also media offers/internet) leading to a wide misunderstanding of media’s role in society. So, trust in media was discredited by the media itself (Brooten, 2016: 188).

    Impacts on journalists’ Autonomy
    After the removal of prior-censorship, the main problems for journalists are now the uncertain legal situation, the financial risks and the blurred lines of socially acceptable discourse issues. This leads to fear and self-censorship (Freedom House, 2016a). “Military officials threatened journalists with criminal charges, police impeded coverage of protests, and the Ministry of Information suppressed outlets affiliated with an ousted leader during 2015” (Freedom House, 2016). Threats and harassment are usual and the legal situation is changing so rapidly that journalists often feel uncertain in what is allowed to report and which topics are forbidden. Therefore, it sometimes lacks on creativity and courage to criticize or write about sensitive issues. Furthermore, the interviewed expertsmentioned a huge racism and intolerance problem among the ethnic minorities groups resulting in biased and hateful reports on some topics. In many interviews, threats and harassment from Buddhist nationalist groups were mentioned. Additionally, many interviewees said that especially in social media government censorship was replaced through public censorship in form of online harassment. That is one reason why journalists would have changed their online behaviour acting more cautiously when covering controversial subjects (Freedom House, 2016b). In general, journalists avoid topics that could lead to criticism of the military or government, topics which disturb the rule of law or social harmony and especially religion or minority issues. Mainly the discussion about the Muslim Rohingya minority in the north of Myanmar is one of the most sensitive topics, and therefore, often not reported at all. Another one is the armed uprising of ethnic minorities, for example, the renewed outbreak of fighting in the Kachin region (ibid; Radue and Bullerdieck, 2015: 44; Linnarz, 2013).
    Besides self-censorship, there are some other factors that restrict journalists’ autonomy. “The use of libel and defamation suits has increased significantly; they are often filed by officials, ministries, or other state bodies not yet willing to make use of the Myanmar Press Council as an arbitrator between media and those with complaints” (Brooten, 2016: 185).


    Related Links

    Interviewed experts
    • Due to the uncertain legal situation, most interviewees wanted to stay anonymous. The interviews have been conducted in December 2016 with persons from different media organizations (e.g. DVB, Myanmar Independent Journal, Myanmar Journalist Network, Messenger Journal). One telephone interview was conducted with the German researcher Melanie Radue on December 24th, 2016.
    Recommended citation form
    Julia Traunspurger: Myanmar. In: Michael Meyen (ed.), Mapping Media Freedom. LMU Munich: Department of Communication Studies and Media Research 2017. (access date)

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