Will Myanmar’s media ever tell the true story?

Photo: Foreign and Commonwealth Office/CC BY 2.0

By Dung Phan

“Things can’t be changed overnight,” is a true motto when it comes to media reform in Myanmar. Even when the party of Aung San Suu Kyi gained a stake in power earlier this year, the country’s propaganda machine has seen little of the change and freedom promised.

“I think government-owned media are not good for democracy,” she said last year. “We will not abolish them immediately, but yet don’t want to delay doing it as well. It would be better if we did everything according to democratic principles as soon as possible.”

Expectations have been especially heightened by the composition of the National League for Democracy (NLD) cabinet, with well-known writer and critic, Dr Pe Myint, appointed Minister of Information. Recently, he has made it clear that state media will channel the communication between people and the government. It will serve as, “a room for public voices and dissenting views on government policies”.

Observers, however, say their limited editorial freedoms have been further curtailed and they are now, “spinning more stories than ever.”

“A censor is still a censor”

In attempt to reform the media landscape, the New Light of Myanmar – once nicknamed as, “the New Lies of Myanmar” and known for decades as a mouthpiece of the military – was relaunched as the Global New Light of Myanmar in 2014. But such changes have barely scratched the surface of what is needed.

“The former government didn’t care much about the views of outside countries. But Daw Aung San Suu Kyi cares more about international opinion. That’s why that I think our English-language newspaper is facing a tougher situation,” said Khin Maung Aye, the paper’s chief editor.

Each night, Khin Maung Aye has to call Pe Myint to discuss what stories he can and can’t run the next day. In particular, the minister pays close attention to the front page and opinion-editorials.

The new government is especially sensitive when it comes to illegal migration and the peace process and any article about these topics has to be examined closely before publication. And there is definitely no criticism of Ms. Suu Kyi’s administration. As for the difference between the current and former governments, Khin Maung Aye explains, “A censor is still a censor. It’s just more polite at the moment.”

Journalism trainer Ko Phyo Wai Lin agrees with this bleak assessment, saying there has been little change in the state media. “During the term of the military government and U Thein Sein government, the state-owned media distributed propaganda. Now, they are doing it for the NLD government. The theme is the same,” he adds.

Lack of public demand

Nurturing the one-dimensional media in Myanmar is the lack of public will to fight for freedom of the press. Media freedom has to be part of a wider process of engaging people in the government’s affairs and as such it cannot exist if the broader public is not prepared to demand or defend it.

Many in Myanmar believe what state media report, even when it has served as a mouthpiece for the repressive junta for decades. 87% of people that replied to a United Nations-backed survey said that, “they trust state media, though a nearly equal number—85%—said they trusted private media.” Unfortunately, nearly two-thirds of the country’s population live in remote areas,  making it even more difficult for them to engage in public debate.

As an example of the limits to what can be said, Aung San Suu Kyi has banned officials from using the term “Rohingya.” Instead they should be described as, “people who believe in Islam in Rakhine state.” Many rights groups expressed their disappointment at how she avoided direct discussion of this sensitive issue.

In another incident, Ministry of Information censors banned a film festival from showing, “Twilight Over Burma” last month. They said the film, which depicts the relationship between an ethnic Shan prince and an Austrian woman, would, “impact the stability of relationships between ethnic people [and] the military.”

However, the core problem in these controversial decisions is reported to be, “how many people still love to see images of Aung San Suu Kyi on newspapers and on TV”. And the wholehearted support for the country’s administration, combined with low Internet penetration of just 2.5%, makes it likely that Suu Kyi’s administration can make use of its ingrained propaganda machine long into the future.