Seminar on “The Media in Post-2016 Myanmar: Changing Roles, Changing Attitudes”

In this seminar, y Mr Mratt Kyaw Thu, Mr Kyaw Min Swe, Dr Nwet Kay Khine, Ms Nyein Ei Ei Htwe, and Mr Ye Htut discussed the changing attitudes towards media in Myanmar after the NLD government took office.


Tuesday, 23 July 2019 – The ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme convened a panel discussion on the changing role of and changing attitudes towards media in Myanmar after the National League for Democracy (NLD) government had taken office in 2016. This panel discussion continued the conversation which the Myanmar Studies Programme had started in 2018, on the media in Myanmar’s democratic transition.

With support from the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the panel discussion was held at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute on 23 July 2019. Four prominent members of the Myanmar media, and a former Minister for Information from the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) government, shared their views with an audience of about 40 registered attendees.

From left to right: Mr Mratt Kyaw Thu, Mr Kyaw Min Swe, Dr Nwet Kay Khine, Dr Michael Montesano (moderator), Ms Nyein Ei Ei Htwe, and Mr Ye Htut. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Nwet Kay Khine, board member of the Irrawaddy Foundation and member of Panna Institute, provided a historical overview of Myanmar’s media landscape from the 19th century to present times, emphasising that authorities in Burma/Myanmar had persistently pursued authoritarian policies and practices regarding media expression. Successive governments up to 2012 had used censorship to control reporting, particularly on security issues. The practice of “double gate-keeping censorship” started under Japanese occupation, when a formal censorship board was imposed for the first time. This practice re-emerged under socialist and military rule in 1962-2010. All news content was subject to censorship until the censorship board was dissolved in 2012. Between 2008-2012, however, about 15 to 20% of news content was censored. Despite some easing after the 2010 elections, censorship spiked to around 11-12% at the first spark of the Rohingya crisis in 2012. Before 2008, about 20-30% of new stories across a wide range of topics were censored. Still, the “calculated liberalisation” period of 2005-2015 gradually lifted restrictions, issued new media laws, established the Myanmar Media Council, and reintegrated exile media into the local media scene, and ended formal censorship. However, “new” forms of censorship/restrictions are emerging. With the 2020 elections approaching, measures to continue media reforms must go beyond maintaining status quo to create an environment that is conducive to freedom of expression, pluralism and diversity of the media.

Mr Kyaw Min Swe, member of the Myanmar Press Council, Chief Editor of Voice Journal, and Executive Director of Myanmar Journalism Institute, highlighted three concerns. First, Myanmar’s press freedom rankings indicate both a dramatic improvement from its position a decade ago as well as room for improvement. Second, media needs to engage both public and government audiences, to bridge and mediate polarised attitudes regarding the country’s transition, as well as perceptions of media bias in the political and electoral processes. Third, the media also needs to guard against external attempts to influence or interfere in the work of the media professionals. Media in Myanmar today are vulnerable to such attempts, due to the financial concerns exacerbated by the explosion of social media. Media professionals also need to be professional.

Mr Mratt Kyaw Thu, a freelance journalist who had formerly been with at Frontier Myanmar from its founding in 2015, and recipient of the 2017 Kate Webb prize from Agence France Presse, shared his personal experience of reporting on ethnic and conflict issues in Rakhine, Shan and Kachin states in Myanmar, observing the escalation of expressions of hate on media. After the Rohingya conflict grabbed headlines in 2016-17, especially after the arrest of two Reuters reporters in 2017, ethnic identity became an important factor for reporters in talking to local residents. This has affected not only reporting on the Rohingya issue, but also on the situation of the armed clashes between the Arakan Army and the Tatmadaw, the Myanmar armed forces. For example, the attitudes of native Rakhine people living in Rakhine State have been affected by the psychological impact of the armed conflict between and how it is portrayed on social media, and by the rise of nationalism. Bamar journalists specialising in Rakhine issues thus find it very difficult (and challenging) to report from the field. Psychological tensions between Bamar and other ethnic groups have also been exacerbated by recent international news reports. Many journalists and members of the media profession now feel as though they have lost public trust and interest (as well as investment) in investigative journalism. Many journalists have turned to other professions for their livelihood, and many are waiting for the next media “renaissance” in Myanmar.

Ms Nyein Ei Ei Htwe, a news eitor with the Myanmar Times, discussed gender issues in the media industry, and how Myanmar women’s’ voices are mentioned in the media. Overall, about 20% of women’s voices are mentioned in media. For some publications such as women’s magazines on beauty or household matters, the coverage of women’s voices is about 56%, but for political content, the coverage drops to about 14%, with the exception of mentions of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi or her pronouncements. The 2015 elections saw about 1.12% coverage of women’s voices who were mostly decision-makers, observers, or higher-level representatives of international organisations and NGOs. There has been greater mention of women and their voices in the Myanmar media after 2015, but in the sad context of domestic or sexual violence or as victims of conflict. Female journalists in Myanmar also face structural and cultural barriers for their work. Many women journalists sacrifice their careers to marriage and family needs. About 40% of the media industry comprises women journalists work, but only about 7% are in decision-making positions.

Mr Ye Htut, former Minister for Information in the USDP administration and Visiting Senior Fellow at ISEAS, shared his views as a discussant, offering seven takeaways from the panellists’ discussions. Mainly, there were: 1) different perceptions about the USDP and NLD administrations, with higher expectations placed on the NLD government to continue with the media reforms; 2) different “tolerance-levels” by former President Thein Sein and State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi towards critical media reporting on their and their respective governments’ actions; 3) different prioritisation of reform programmes under the USDP and NLD government, where media reform featured prominently under the USDP reforms but not under the NLD; 4) difference in trust levels with the military, with the USDP enjoying a better working relationship with the military in discussing media reform or relations with the media, resulting in the media becoming a victim of tensions between the Tatmadaw and the NLD government; 5) dynamics of Myanmar society over ethnic and conflict issues affecting media reporting on these issues; 6) market pressures and competition with social media affecting media ethics; and 7) capacity-building of journalists not being formally allowed until 2012.

The panellists were in broad agreement that the upcoming 2020 elections would see political parties and the Tatmadaw reluctant to brook criticism from the media. The 2020 elections would thus, in the panellists’ and discussant’s view, provide a test-case of sorts for media reporting in Myanmar’s transition.

The seminar was well-attended. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)