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Burma shaking up media reform in Asean countries

Rangoon – Aung Kyi, the newly appointed minister of information, did not mince any words when he said in an international media conference recently that Myanmar would adopt the international standard of press freedom and public service media. He also said that representatives from Article 19 and BBC are assisting in this process.

Kavi ChongkittavornBut his deputy, Ye Htut, went a bit further. He proudly said that the country views a free and democratic atmosphere as crucial for developing the economy, achieving national reconciliation and integration with the international community.

If Myanmar continues on this path without reversing, it will become the grouping's game changer when the Asean chair comes to Naypyitaw in 457 days. At the moment, no Asean member has undergone such swift changes in so short time, especially in the media sector. After years of being chastised as the black sheep of the Asean family since it joined in 1997, now the time has come for the Thein Sein government to make his country a showcase for Asean.

Both Aung Kyi and Ye Htut want to see the media freedom in the country better than those of other Asean countries. Admittingly, the current media reform has put more than half of the Asean members to shame.

While it was a grotesque rights violator in the past, Myanmar should now be given credit for promoting democracy, human rights and press freedom simultaneously. After nearly a year of scrutiny, the Asian grouping of national human rights institutions has recently admitted Myanmar's national human rights commission into its fold as a member. That was a giant step for a country, which was a few months ago labeled as a pariah state.

And Myanmar is about to back a new law that will recognise the role of civil society organisations. The first draft has been completed recently and is now being vetted and amended by politicians and civil society organisations. If it is approved in the near future, Myanmar will join Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia as countries that recognised non-government groups. It is an open secret that most Asean members are still reluctant to acknowledge the role of civil groups and perceive them as troublemakers or foreign agents. Ironic as it may seem, all Asean leaders agree to the idea of building a people-centred community. There are more than 300 non-state sponsored civil groups in the country at the moment.

Of course, the most dramatic reform since President Thein Sein formed his government last March has been in the media sector. Now all the major exiled media, including Mizzima, the Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy have a presence in Yangon. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law was abolished in August, journalists have been put on the defensive having to ensure their reports were accurate and fair. Otherwise, they could be sued.

Some journalists viewed such actions as a form of media intimidation. However, the government defended its action saying the media had to be responsible for what they wrote or published. In the near future, both the government and journalists are hoping to see a credible self-regulatory body set up. An interim national press council was formed recently to prepare a new draft of media law. Journalists have already met and exchanged views among themselves to determine desirable elements in the new media law. International and regional free media advocacy groups have poured into Myanmar to assist the journalists to increase their capacity, improve their professionalism and form professional organisations to protect press freedom.

Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy online magazine based in Chiang Mai, has cautious words on the emergence of press freedom inside Myanmar. While he expressed appreciation of the general atmosphere of press freedom, he said there was still a lot of self-imposed censorship. For instance, reporters in Myanmar have never written about the whereabouts of elusive General Than Shwe and other senior officials. Sensitive issues such as the recent violence in Rakhine State and fighting between government troops and ethnic groups were reported without impartiality. Exiled media outlets have provided more balanced views of what goes on inside Myanmar, much to the chagrin of local journalists.

Ye Htut told this author recently that Myanmar's leaders have learnt from mistakes in the past and want to set forth a new future.

"So we have to be true to ourselves, media freedom is the key," he said confidently. At the moment, the Ministry of Information has been cited by local journalists and the public at large as the most reform-minded agency. Recently the identity of thousands of individuals blacklisted by the regime was revealed. But, some journalists and activists are still not allowed in.

One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of the state-run broadcasting service into a public broadcasting entity. Experts from the BBC have been helping the state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) to go through this transition over the past several months. If it succeeds, it could become a new template for other developing countries, which emerge from totalitarian systems. Myanmar's state media have not gone through any change since the country got independence in 1948. So, the task of trying to change the mindset of officials who used to serve as mouthpieces for the government, is an enormous challenge. But Ye Htut says it can be done. "We are not reinventing the wheel," he declared.

Within the Asean context, what Myanmar has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment to compliance with the numerous rules. However, in the past 18 months, Myanmar has swiftly and broadly instituted sensitive reforms shunned by other Asean countries.

When Myanmar chairs Asean, after Brunei, it can give the region a wake-up by choosing the promotion of freedom and widened democratic space in Asean as its theme. After all, that is what the country has been doing quite impressively now.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a widely followed commentator on Southeast Asian affairs.
Last Updated ( Wednesday, 03 October 2012 19:34 )  
The Kachin’s last stand
Since October this year, Burma has been in a state of civil war, with fighting between Burmese military and armed ethnic rebels. The ruling junta started a crackdown on these armed groups.

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