Ethnic media and views needed in Myanmar

opinion March 10, 2014 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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For three days last week, more than 250 journalists belonged to ethnic groups from all over Myanmar gathered here with clear objectives: to make their voices heard and to strengthen their nascent media network as well as improve journalistic skills and pr

Since 2011, Myanmar has loosening media controls allowing independent printed media to proliferate. At the moment, 18 dailies and 389 weeklies are competing under the watchful eyes of the authorities. MOI has repeatedly said that the aim of media reform is to promote democracy, freedom of expression and attain the international standard of media freedom.
However, of late MOI has toughened measures against local and foreign journalists following several media controversies. Four journalists from Unity Journal were arrested for their report on alleged weapons factory. Visas for foreign journalist has been curbed, followed over a year of liberalization. Nayphidaw has blamed foreign media inaccurate reports on communal conflicts in Rakline State.
As MOI moves to tighten local media freedom ahead of the next year’s election and ongoing peace process, it has openly courted the ethnic media as never before seen. In his opening remark, Pike Htwe said the government want to promote the voice of the voiceless and enhance the information rights for the country’s citizens.
Khin Muang Shwe, Secretary General of the Burma News International (BNI), was pleased with the government’s more open space towards the ethnic media, which used to struggle – earlier underground and now openly – to get information and views across to their peoples and others. He said that around 30 ethnic media, mainly newspaper and journals, have been granted licenses by MOI. Officially, nine national minority language news journals are published regularly. BNI is a network of 12 independent ethnic media organizations including those from Chin, Kachin, Shan, Arakan, Mon, Karen, among others. Some of them have set up offices in Yangon to coordinate printing and distribution of their publications.
Given the current political dynamic, the media landscape is still evolving. Just last week, after nearly two years of scrutiny and consultations with local stakeholders and foreign experts, the Media Bill submitted by the Interim Myanmar Press Council and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill by MOI were passed by the Parliament. The latter reaffirms the authorities the power to revoke publishing licenses.  
Over 2,000-strong journalists – including 500 rookies over the past 18 months – are now testing the media freedom on a daily basis with reporting on political, security and economic issues. Communal conflicts, alleged corruption and human rights violations are considered taboos but journalists are not shying away albeit self-censorship. For instance, some privately owned dailies and weeklies have begun to follow the government-sanctioned narratives on communal conflicts, especially in the Rakhine State.
In coming months, the role of ethnic broadcasting media will emerge as one of the key issues in the peace process with the ethnic groups. The operation of news and information programs in ethnic languages on radio and televisions are limited and only available on the state-run media outlets only.
The government has drafted a new broadcasting law that will turn the state-own media into public media entities with provisions of privately run community media including radio, FM, TV stations. Undoubtedly, community radio will eventually become the most important channel to disseminate information among the minority groups scattering throughout the country.  They need information on the peace process, the election in 2005, state of healthcare in their own languages, radio broadcast is still the most efficient means of communication.
Dressed in their traditional and colorful costumes – some with their signature head bands – these journalists are very enthusiastic to participation in the current democratic transition. They are proud of their identities, histories and culture. But they need capacity building in reporting on sensitive issues related to conflict and inter-ethnic issues. The ethnic media have been targeted by Nayphidaw sometimes for spreading disinformation and sensationalism about the situation on the ground even when they said their reports were accurate and balanced. “Despite their different ethnic groups, they have one thing in common to provide a platform for their communities to be part of the ongoing political changes in Myanmar,” said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, executive director of Southeast Asian Press Alliance, which has helping the BNI for the past five years.
Regional and international media organizations are now helping to increase ethnic media’s professionalism especially in reporting communal conflicts and ongoing peace process coupling with ethics and business practices for sustainability. At present, dozens programs on media trainings, mostly ad hoc, are taught by regional and international media practitioners.