A rock, a hard place and the media

Writer: 
san moe htun

 

The media industry in Myanmar certainly is no stranger to getting into trouble with the authorities.

Each successive government had sued and jailed plenty of journalists, including the quasi-civilian government under previous President Thein Sein and the numbers only rose under the current administration ruled by de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Part of the blame rests on the extremely feeble set of laws that govern the media industry. There currently are three; printing & publishing, media laws in general and broadcasting.

Most of them were put into effect during Thein Sein’s administration but till date, those laws have yet to actually serve or protect media professionals. Back before the laws were passed, Myanmar’s interim press council as well as independent attempts by the media industry to critique and improve the laws was all but ignored.

Since then, a new and official press council that was state sponsored was formed. The idea is that any grievance with the media was to be taken up to the council and then proceed on from there.

However, since the laws do not explicitly state that the involvement of the press council was a necessary step, those that sought to silent the media always took the more direct approach of getting the police and taking legal action.

In 2013, Eleven Media Group (EMG)’s news reporter Ma Khine was jailed for three months under defamation and trespass charges.

In 2014, Zaw Pe from Democratic Voice of Burma was jailed for a year. And the same year, five journalists from Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years in prison for under charges relating to state secrets.

Another five from Bi Moon Tae Nay Journal, including the publishers, were all jailed for two years for crimes against the state.

The list keeps on growing over the years. Most of EMG’s upper management including the CEO Dr Than Htut Aung and editors were sued by the Ministry of Information. This was just one of the MOI’s cases against independent media organizations.

While not every case involving someone from the media concern media laws, there certainly were more numbers of times media laws were ignored.

Amongst the many laws that have been used to impede the media industry, perhaps none stands out more than the infamous telecommunications law 66(d) that allows immediate arrest and no bail.

Under that junta era law, anyone is able to sue on behalf of anybody else even for posts and comments on social media platforms, mainly Facebook.

While there have been a whole slew of people that were sued under 66(d), only those that have been initiated by either the military or the government manages to get followed through by the courts.

From journalists, poem authors to simple civilian bold enough dish out bigger measures of criticisms have been sued and jailed up to a maximum of two years.

Under the Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy (NLD)’s administration, there have been a total of 96 recorded 66(d) related cases.

While there certainly were people who were persecuted during Thein Sein’s administration through 66(d), none of them were the media.

Out of the 96 cases, 12 of them involve the media with at least 20 media professionals are still locked legal battle.

On July 7 2017, the parliaments attempted to amend the telecommunication laws. MPs came up with a draft that had six major changes, including the notorious 66(d).

Despite high hopes from the people, the only noticeable change that was made was that those sued under 66(d) now are allowed bail. Other changes that removed some of the grounds on which a person could be gotten to via 66(d), are negligible as most cases were about defamation.

All of these developments or the lack thereof, paints a grim future for Myanmar’s media industry.

Myanmar is a regular participant of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s list of top 10 countries with the worst press freedom, coming in at number 9th according to their latest data.

Freedom House, another well-known advocacy group for press freedom, claimed that Myanmar does not, in fact, enjoy press freedom. The group pointed at the laws, most of which dates back into the junta-era as well as the struggling businesses of private, independent media organizations made worse compounded by the fact that journalists were getting persecuted.

Other prominent journalistic organizations such as the WAN-IFRA as well as Reporters Without Borders had also made similar critiques.

Aside from legal troubles, there is also the problem of competition by the state owned media competing against private media companies as well as the manipulations of crony businessmen that also own media companies of their own and using great wealth to influence events.

All in all, it is undeniable that Myanmar’s media industry is still a fledgling and even though Myanmar’s military had dropped all three on-going lawsuits against the media. One of such cases was with EMG’s Chief Editor Wai Phyo.

Some would even argue that the situation had actually regressed. In between April 2013 to December 2015, there were total of 33 private journals and newspapers in regular circulation.

There are only nine, eight in the local language and one in English, which had managed to survive up until now.

The State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD had promised after her landslide electoral victory in 2015 December 30 through the RFA that the existence of state owned newspapers are against democratic values.

One can only watch how events will unfold and hope that Myanmar’s independent media organization will survive until some real change occurs.