Burmese journalists are enjoying their newfound freedoms. But there are still plenty of limits to how far they can go.
- By Francis WadeFrancis Wade is a freelance journalist and analyst covering Burma and Southeast Asia.
March 30, 2013 marked the two-year anniversary of Burma’s current reformist government. Two days later, on April 1, the first batch of private daily newspapers to be published in more than half a century hit the stands — a fitting tribute to the country’s gradual opening.
The past two years have seen a quiet revolution for Burma’s media sector, which for so long knew only stifling censorship. The last of the private dailies was banned in 1965, three years after General Ne Win took power in a coup; the military junta he headed had brought the entire press industry under its control. Fearful that censors would find it hard to spot signs of dissent in the daily media, the new government made sure that news from there on out could not be news. Private publications were ordered to send pages to the censor board days in advance, which meant that content was both out of date and heavily sanitized.
Nearly half a century later, the official dissolution of the censor board in February 2013 marked a dramatic change in the media sector, and journalists have been able to capitalize on hitherto unknown freedoms — press entry to parliament, access to government officials, and the demise of pre-publication censorship. But the shift masks a lingering reluctance to allow the fourth estate to operate wholly independently, with monitoring committees set up to ensure journalists adhere to vague media laws that still carry the threat of imprisonment. And then there are the risks of an unpredictable market, including the potentially monopolistic inclinations of Burma’s well-connected business tycoons.
For the newspaper industry, the launch of dailies sparked a scramble among editors to transform their operations. "I’ve had to change the whole structure of the organization to meet the standards of a daily newspaper," says Ko Ko, chairman of the Yangon Media Group and publisher of the Yangon Times, which launched its first daily in May. "I need new desk editors and copy editors; I need to expand the circulation department and upgrade our marketing department."
The paper is in its eighth year, but Ko Ko makes it clear that the transition from weekly to daily coverage marks a new beginning for him and his team of journalists. There is a new crop of reporters, many in their early 20s, who are themselves emerging from an environment in which free media was harshly suppressed. (Journalists who refused to toe the regime’s line could end up with prison sentences of up to 20 years for a variety of offenses.)
Yet the world they are entering remains filled with hazards. Many of the laws that put journalists behind bars remain in place, and a press bill approved by the Lower House in July 2013 bans publication of any material deemed critical of the military-drafted 2008 constitution. As human rights groups have pointed out, the bill’s definition of "publication" is so broad as to include posters and emails. It essentially places media outlets under the control of the government.
What went largely unnoticed was the establishment via presidential order of a media monitoring committee in early January, which was tasked with ensuring that publications adhere to this press bill. The committee includes representatives from a range of ministries that should, on the surface, be of little concern to media, including the national police and the Military Security Affairs office. The composition of the body speaks to the fact that hawkish elements of the government and military are eager to retain a degree of influence over a media that should ostensibly be free to report on issues of malfeasance or abuses by the army.
The government claims the new press bill will break with the archaic 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law. Critics, however, have argued that it will merely institutionalize a less draconian but still dangerous form of self-censorship. The uncertainty over how far to push the boundaries of free expression is exemplified by a lawsuit launched against a journalist at The Voice Weekly who reported on rampant corruption in the mining ministry. It was later dropped.
The lingering hostility toward free speech bubbled over late last year when, in an unprecedented move, parliament voted in favor of creating an emergency committee to investigate a blogger by the name of Dr. Seik Phwa. He had criticized a move by military-aligned MPs to block a new bill that would lessen parliament’s influence over the judiciary. Parliament’s decision points to both a continued desire to control the courts and to limit the media when it interferes with the interests of the elite.
The international attention both incidents triggered may, however, have led to the deployment of subtler tactics. Some believe that a requirement in the press bill that newspapers reapply for a license each year is intended to control content. Editors are likely to avoid angering the government if it carries the potential for them to go out of business.
Journalists in Burma are now treading on shaky ground — and this goes beyond just censorship. The economic survival of newspapers has also been called into question, particularly with their entry into the daily news cycle. Major hurdles loom, not least of which is competition for readership with the slew of other dailies being launched around now. Thirty-one titles in total have received licenses. Included in these are political party-run papers — both the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the opposition National League for Democracy now have new mouthpieces with which to gauge public support for policy proposals.
Ko Ko thinks most newspapers will start out with a relatively small circulation of around 30,000 in a population of nearly 60 million, and go from there. Investing too heavily in such an unpredictable venture is dangerous, given the sea of logistical problems that exist in Burma, from a printing industry that will be suddenly forced to accommodate more than half a million new publications each day to the age-old problem of daily power cuts.
It’s an adapt-or-die scenario, and the likelihood of all the dailies still being around next year is slim. The looming competition for readers goes hand in hand with competition for advertising revenue, and arrives just as a struggling print world turns to the Internet. English-language newspapers, which cater to a much smaller print audience in Burma, will feel this most, although all will have to make major adjustments.
"To survive, those [weekly newspapers] that don’t go daily will have to become niche products rather than the general news publications they are at the moment," says Thomas Kean, editor of the English-language edition of the Myanmar Times, which was and still is the country’s only private English-language newspaper. The Times is also bringing in new staff in preparation for the switch. It’s an uncertain period, but Kean thinks the move to dailies will lead to a maturation of the media industry. "Although readers will have fewer publications to choose from, those they will be able to buy are likely to be better resourced and offer broader coverage than weeklies can at present," he says. "They will have larger newsrooms and also a better geographic reach."
But there’s a flipside. "Often the newspapers that are going to go daily have access to capital, and usually that is because of their association with cronies or big business interests that were linked to the former or current government," says Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Crispin thinks that the nature of the media marketplace in Burma could lend itself to a consolidation of titles that are affiliated with the government, in turn allowing it to better control the press.
To make matters worse, a recent bill has transformed state mouthpieces into public service media outlets. These outlets will get 70 percent of their funding from the government. The other 30 percent will be independent revenue. Critics argue it will tip market competition heavily in favor of government-affiliated papers.
The problem could be further exacerbated by cronyism. 7Day News Journal, for example, one of the most popular weekly journals, is run by the son of former Foreign Minister Win Aung. Another title traditionally seen as close to the government is Weekly Eleven. Its attempts to forge a more independent path through close coverage of the Kachin conflict and the army’s controversial aerial bombardment of rebel positions in December carried a cost. In January it was hit with cyberattacks that paralyzed its website. While no one claimed responsibility, it is widely thought that elements within military intelligence were behind it. Shortly after, the email account of its chief editor and those of three other Burmese and international journalists who had been closely covering events in Kachin were hacked.
Amid this uncertainty, exiled media groups who were traditionally cast as archenemies of the Burmese state are attempting to set up inside Burma. Two main issues are fuelling their return: First, that the fight for popularity in the new media environment will inevitably favor those with a stronger on-the-ground presence; second, that funding for exiled media groups will dry up as domestic outlets gain strength and Western countries forge stronger alliances with Naypyidaw.
Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma, says that its dependence on donor money, the future of which remains uncertain, is the real problem. As for competition, he thinks those media groups that cut their teeth independently from the government can steal a march on local media.
"Coverage of hardcore political issues is new for domestic media," he says. "They still can’t compete with experienced outside media; they don’t dare to face up to authorities and ask the types of questions they need to ask, which we know how to do."
The group’s future in Burma won’t be sealed until the government addresses its broadcast law, which currently bars foreign-based television media that broadcast inside the country from opening offices there, and that likely won’t be until 2014. Despite no longer being entirely state-controlled, television remains closely monitored. Content aired by the likes of SkyNet, the country’s only private station, still goes through a series of checks before being broadcast. In that sense, television stations outside of the country have more freedom regarding sensitive content than do local groups. Their larger audience could potentially grow more now that historical fears about watching exiled television have dissipated.
The environment evidently remains too uncertain for foreign investors seeking opportunities in Burma’s media sector. Last year, the Thai newspaper The Nation launched a joint website with Eleven Media, which owns Weekly Eleven, but beyond that, options are limited. The recently announced investment law only allows investment in foreign-language newspapers, which are few and far between. The state-run New Light of Myanmar has been looking for partners for months now, but has so far received no interest. Given concerns about how to monetize media outlets in Burma, it could be some time before newspapers really open up to outside capital.
This all adds to a pervasive anxiety about how the transition to potentially freer media in Burma will play out. The skills and capacity of homegrown journalists will also be a major factor in separating those newspapers who stay afloat and those who sink. Many were trained in state-controlled institutions and were effectively spoon-fed material to report on by the government. Having been conditioned against the essential modus operandi of reporting — the seeking out of ones own material, scrutiny of authority, and so on — it will take an extraordinary amount of dedication and resources on the part of money-strapped editors to transform this generation of journalists.
Compounding all this is a natural unease about what this transitional period actually means, and where it will end up. "There’s a risk that the government is using this period of openness as a way to join the dots between journalists and their contacts, the way they operate, who talks to who, and so on," says Shawn Crispin. "And if this period comes to a close then the government is going to have an awfully nice diagram of who thinks what and who writes what."
That fear, common among editors, is itself a ripe ingredient for self-censorship. With more than half a century to fester, fear of authority in Burma is firmly internalized. Coupled with the knowledge that there is obvious discord within the government over this budding era of openness, journalists’ ingrained inclination towards self-censorship could last well into the future. Should media really open up, the rewards for journalists, investors, and 60 million Burmese will be rich, but the foundation upon which the fourth estate stands is shaky.