By Trevor Wilson
Yangon, Myanmar, August 4, 2016
As a voracious consumer of Myanmar journalism over some time, I am fascinated by how the country’s transition to freedom of the press takes root and prospers.
Progress toward press freedom has occurred very rapidly in Myanmar since 2012, but we still see too many instances of journalists being detained and even charged over what they have published.
I am not an expert on Myanmar’s history of government-controlled media, but am conscious of the great respect that Myanmar society has always accorded its writers who sought to influence and improve attitudes of public policy. In some ways, even “routine” reporting of events and developments today by Myanmar journalists continues this tradition.
I am also conscious of the pitfalls of excessively cautious “self-censorship” that U Pe Myint, now the minister for information, warned about when he attended the 2011 Myanmar Update conference at Australian National University.
At that time, U Pe Myint was editor-in-chief of the People’s Age. The Thein Sein government’s relaxation of print censorship did not take effect until 2012.
I also agree with the views of former Myanmar Times journalist Ma Nwe Nwe Aye about the valuable role that an open media can play in countries like Myanmar in combating corruption, or in raising public awareness and protecting political integrity in other meaningful ways.
I am convinced that Myanmar’s media has a critical role to play in helping consolidate democracy, as democracy cannot be achieved by political practitioners alone, and cannot fulfil its goals in practice without full and explicit public endorsement.
The enthusiasm with which Myanmar journalists have since 2012 consistently exposed sensitive issues and explained ongoing protests and problems is undoubtedly praiseworthy. In many cases, media reporting has ensured government policy has been held to account and the interests of ordinary people (such as workers, land holders and victims of discrimination) have been better protected.
In many cases, of course, such media coverage has meant criticism of government policies or practices that may have caused discomfort and perhaps even anger on the part of the authorities. Much of the government sensitivity was exaggerated and may have been unnecessary or avoidable.
One cause of such problems may be the absence of adequate laws in Myanmar to protect journalists who publish embarrassing information, to improve the scope for the people to obtain proper redress through the judicial system, and to punish those who have violated the law but who informally enjoy a measure of impunity.
Another phenomenon in Myanmar might be the willingness of journalists to accept criticism of the government uncritically. This is probably not surprising, given the history of government control and the lack of trust that developed as a consequence, as well as the incipient nature of a freer press. Journalists also may not be able to obtain clarification of government positions, while it is also true that law enforcement in Myanmar is often frivolous and is pursuing another, political agenda.
In this situation, greater mutual restraint by both sides may help.
Authorities should refrain from responding with excessive force against protesters. And journalists anywhere must exercise care about the motives behind any action they report, and remember their responsibility to verify the truth, rather than to repeat unsubstantiated information, particularly in highly sensitive areas such as national security. The decision to disclose information must be made judiciously, keeping in mind both the public interest and the reliability of sources.
In countries like Australia, we are fortunate to have a range of formal, legal protections which, while not always perfect, go a long way to ensuring the overall system operates fairly. For example, we have strong defamation laws to protect individual reputations (typically not used for other purposes by any government). We also have “whistle-blower protection” laws, which allow abuses of authority to be challenged without the discloser of the information being unfairly penalised.
Australia also has a system of legal aid for those who would not normally be able to afford a lawyer and the costs of mounting a lawsuit, and arrangements through an independent Press Council to ensure media reporting is not mischievous, destructive or in some way unreasonable. Complaining to the Press Council would normally be a last resort, and not often used.
Myanmar’s decision to establish a press council may be welcome, but it will probably not be fully effective on its own.
Generally, media reporting in Australia is also subject to more informal scrutiny, often by peers, so that journalists are encouraged to uphold high standards of integrity and not tempted to seek malicious or corrupt gains from media coverage.
After so many years of isolation, Myanmar’s media have opportunities to learn from the experiences of others.
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. This article is supplied by New Mandala, a specialist website on Southeast Asian affairs based at ANU.
Image: Myanmar Times