Sup­port for Myan­mar's me­dia - vi­tal then, es­sen­tial now

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - TREVOR WILSON news­room@mm­times.com

IHAVE al­ways ad­mired the courage and po­lit­i­cal in­stincts of Myan­mar’s press. Al­though my knowl­edge is lim­ited to English-lan­guage me­dia, when I read what Myan­mar jour­nal­ists are writ­ing I have of­ten been im­pressed by how valu­able and re­li­able the best Myan­mar jour­nal­ism is.

But I have also seen some Myan­mar jour­nal­ism which is not so im­pres­sive, a com­mon con­cern in any coun­try.

A few Myan­mar jour­nal­ists have re­ceived train­ing from for­eign ex­perts and prac­ti­tion­ers. Some of this was, in ef­fect, “train­ing on the job”, where for­eign jour­nal­ists had come to Myan­mar to work along­side their lo­cal col­leagues. Some of these for­eign jour­nal­ists were Aus­tralians who seemed to be both pro­fes­sional and ded­i­cated in­struc­tors.

An­other sig­nif­i­cant source of me­dia train­ing dur­ing the pe­riod of the mil­i­tary regime – that is, from 1988 – was spe­cial­ist train­ing pro­vided over­seas by in­ter­na­tional agen­cies which were com­mit­ted to bring­ing democ­racy to Myan­mar.

The main in­ter­na­tional donor was the United States, which de­liv­ered this train­ing through gov­ern­ment and non-gov­ern­ment chan­nels. The US gov­ern­ment claims that by 2014 train­ing in ba­sic me­dia skills was pro­vided to more than 400 Myan­mar jour­nal­ists to sup­port the coun­try’s demo­cratic tran­si­tion.

Some of this me­dia train­ing was es­pe­cially tar­geted at eth­nic groups or women’s groups, many of which were based out­side Myan­mar (many were in Thai­land).

The re­sults can be seen in the im­pres­sive amount of doc­u­men­tary re­port­ing pro­duced by eth­nic me­dia net­works record­ing from abroad the con­di­tions in eth­nic re­gions and the abuses these groups suf­fered, mostly at the hands of the Myan­mar mil­i­tary. The anti-gov­ern­ment char­ac­ter of this kind of re­port­ing, com­pared to re­port­ing em­a­nat­ing from jour­nal­ists work­ing in­side Myan­mar, is also strik­ing.

Ja­pan was the only other bi­lat­eral donor which in­cluded me­dia train­ing in its tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance pro­grams dur­ing Myan­mar’s mil­i­tary rule, much of it de­liv­ered by Ja­panese NGOs such as the Sasakawa Peace Foun­da­tion. Very lit­tle is known about the re­sults.

Af­ter 2011, un­der the U Thein Sein gov­ern­ment the in­ten­sity of me­dia train­ing in­creased. A few in­ter­na­tional agen­cies such as UNICEF, UNESCO, In­ter­na­tional Me­dia Ser­vices and In­ter­na­tional IDEA pro­vided in-coun­try train­ing in spe­cialised ar­eas such as health, chil­dren, cli­mate change and elec­tion re­port­ing.

The Aus­tralian Broad­cast­ing Cor­po­ra­tion (ABC) is one of the few gov­ern­ment-funded for­eign news agen­cies to have un­der­taken me­dia train­ing in Myan­mar, in its case for its “coun­ter­part” Myan­mar-gov­ern­ment-owned Myanma Ra­dio and Tele­vi­sion (MRTV). Voice of Amer­ica also has a for­mal agree­ment with MRTV, and Ja­panese and Chi­nese state-funded agen­cies pro­vide as­sis­tance to Myan­mar as well.

Us­ing its ex­pe­ri­ence as a broad­caster with a clear na­tional “mis­sion” to help ru­ral lis­ten­ers, or young lis­ten­ers, and to pro­mote the arts, the ABC and MRTV signed a mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing in 2013 un­der which the ABC pro­vided spe­cial­ist pro­gram­ming and other tech­ni­cal train­ing for MRTV staff.

This in­ter­ac­tion was not ex­actly col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween com­pa­ra­ble or­gan­i­sa­tions: The ABC has al­ways been po­lit­i­cally neu­tral in a way the MRTV could not have been.

Ac­tive par­tic­i­pa­tion by Myan­mar in ASEAN, es­pe­cially as chair in 2014, has also in­flu­enced Myan­mar’s treat­ment of its own me­dia. Peer pres­sure, for ex­am­ple un­der the U Thein Sein gov­ern­ment, per­suaded Myan­mar’s lead­ers to seek com­pa­ra­ble stan­dards to its ASEAN me­dia coun­ter­parts, even though me­dia free­dom in some ASEAN coun­tries is not high. As a re­sult, Myan­mar me­dia per­for­mance dur­ing its chair­ing of ASEAN was cred­itable.

As for out­side as­sess­ments of press free­dom, Re­porters With­out Bor­ders ranked Myan­mar a low 143 for 2016, with the com­ment that the gov­ern­ment “seems to have opted for [closely] mon­i­tored free­dom in­stead of the dras­tic cen­sor­ship that was in ef­fect un­til re­cently. So me­dia that cover po­lit­i­cal sub­jects have a bit more free­dom. The Burmese-lan­guage state me­dia nonethe­less con­tinue to cen­sor them­selves and avoid any crit­i­cism of the gov­ern­ment or the armed forces.”

Ac­cord­ing to UNESCO, Myan­mar has still not rat­i­fied most of the in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions re­lat­ing to me­dia stan­dards.

Ac­cord­ing to UNESCO, Myan­mar has still not rat­i­fied most of the in­ter­na­tional con­ven­tions re­lat­ing to me­dia stan­dards.

On the other hand, while so­cial me­dia use has ex­panded very rapidly in Myan­mar in re­cent years, cen­sor­ship of so­cial me­dia may still be an is­sue. And many users still have to be care­ful of what they say on so­cial plat­forms – so it is not yet pos­si­ble to say press free­dom in Myan­mar is im­prov­ing over­all.

Yet, timely and rel­e­vant me­dia re­port­ing is play­ing a key role ev­ery­where: in ex­plain­ing Myan­mar’s po­lit­i­cal de­vel­op­ments; in dis­sem­i­nat­ing the di­rec­tions of eco­nomic re­forms; in mo­bil­is­ing sup­port for all so­cial ini­tia­tives.

With­out the en­er­gis­ing role of Myan­mar’s me­dia, progress would fal­ter, re­forms would floun­der and change would stall.

– This ar­ti­cle is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween The Myan­mar Times and New Man­dala, a spe­cial­ist web­site on South­east Asian af­fairs based at ANU

Trevor Wilson is a vis­it­ing fel­low at Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity’s Co­ral Bell School of Asia Pa­cific Af­fairs, a former Aus­tralian am­bas­sador to Myan­mar and au­thor of Eye­wit­ness to Early Re­form in Myan­mar.

Photo: Staff

Ac­tivists protest in Mandalay against me­dia re­stric­tions in July 2014.

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