It is difficult to think of a country that has undergone a greater transformation in terms of its media landscape in recent years than Myanmar. Led by successive military dictatorships for several decades, the state exercised draconian controls over media. State propaganda publications were often the only insight into the country’s political machinations, dissent was stamped out, and opposition voices simply not tolerated. Journalists were regularly jailed and privately-owned newspapers had not been permitted since the 1960s. In this way, the degree of state intervention in the media system in the past was total — and it remains extremely high.
From 2011 onward, major democratic reforms began to take place, and in 2015 broadly democratic elections were held. But the transition many had hoped would herald a new era for press freedom has since shown significant and worrying signs of backsliding. Journalists face restrictions in their ability to report, and can encounter legal repercussions after publishing.
Political parallelism in Myanmar’s media landscape was and remains high. Political entities, whether the erstwhile junta, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party, or the now-ruling National League for Democracy, all exert a strong influence on the media.
The relatively new phenomenon of private ownership means there is a high degree of political agenda-setting. The junta ceded power to a quasi-civilian government in 2011. This was followed by a period of major reforms, chief among which was the abolition of pre-publication censorship and relaxation of media licensing regulations.
With its high literacy rate, this country of some 51.5 million people is often referred to as a society with a reading culture. Distrust of the military-led government often meant that the information proliferated in state media was taken with a grain of salt, and was rather considered something to be gathered in tea shops — the country’s true hub of news, rumour and conspiracy.
If the teashop was the best source of news, it may have ceded its dominance to social media in recent times. The mass-circulation press is by no means new: State propaganda has unparalleled distribution networks, and this is something private enterprises have struggled to rival, much less compete with.
Myanmar’s digital penetration rate is perhaps the greatest technological leap forward in history. Ten years ago, a SIM card would cost around US$2,500. They are now around $1.50. The opening-up of the telco market, and the veritable explosion in popularity of social media as a news source, has immeasurably changed the way people consume news.
To many in Myanmar, Facebook is the Internet. This has come at a time where the much-discussed phenomenon of ‘fake news’ is an issue all over the world and Myanmar is no exception.
However, until quite recently, radio was considered the primary medium for accessing news. There is a stark rural/urban divide in Myanmar, and until fairly recently its poor telecoms infrastructure meant remote areas had no access to mobile networks. Those living in rural areas remain more likely to listen to the radio than their urban counterparts; however this is beginning to shift. Prior to the reform period, illegal broadcasts from organisations like the BBC, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America (VOA) and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), with its clandestine network of citizen journalists, gave an unfiltered perspective on what was going on inside the country.
The student-led uprisings of 1988 had a lasting influence on the country’s political scene. Thousands went into exile after the brutal military crackdown, and it was during this time that a vibrant exile media scene formed. DVB took up headquarters in Norway and Chiang Mai. The Irrawaddy, a donor-funded magazine (now publishing online only) was also based in Chiang Mai. Following a dramatic hijacking publicity stunt on a plane bound for India, Mizzima was formed in exile. All three organisations now operate in-country, albeit under conditions which remain challenging.
The monk-led uprising of 2007, referred to in the international press as the Saffron Revolution, was a significant moment for the country’s media: The military’s grip on the flow of information became tenuous. Citizen journalists and bloggers were able to show the world the brutal crackdown on protesters, albeit at significant personal risk. Myanmar has — to put it lightly — a dubious track record on press freedom.
After pre-publication censorship was lifted, media outlets quickly found that certain subjects remained sensitive, and that while they could now pretty well publish whatever they liked, that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be consequences after the fact.
It is important to note that Myanmar is home to an array of ethnic and linguistic groups. While the main language spoken is Burmese (referring to the language of the Bamar or Burman Buddhist majority), there are scores of languages in use. However, the government education system and state media is always in Burmese. Ethnic media outlets serve populations within their area, and in conflict-affected areas where there is contested governance will often harbour a bias toward their representative ethnic armed group — or at least against the central government and military.
Burma News International (BNI) is a donor-funded network which brings together ethnic news outlets from around the country, presenting them in English and their respective ethnic languages. Countless other ethnic news organisations, from hard-copy print publications to grassroots Facebook-based outlets, exist around the country.
As mentioned previously, the improvements to the country’s mobile networks and associated boom in smartphone use have highly increased social media usage. In the case of breaking news, many in Myanmar turn to information coming through on social media. People appreciate the sense of immediacy and candour this delivers, although in many cases lack the ability to make critical assessments about the veracity and bias contained therein.
As a profession, development opportunities for journalists are relatively new. In the past, there was little in the way of outside opportunities, and the strict controls exercised on the mass media by the state meant that the concept of journalism and what it is to be a journalist is still evolving to meet international norms. A recent study of 2500 media stories by the Myanmar Women’s Journalist Society and the International Media Support-Fojo Media Institute, Gender in Myanmar News, shows female representation in the country’s media is one of the lowest in Asia.
Only 16 percent of the voices in Myanmar news were found to belong to women (less than one in five), and women were rarely sought as ‘experts’ on any given topic.