Since the 2015 election of the government led by Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate whose international reputation has suffered irreparable damage over her perceived failure to speak out over the military’s ethnic cleansing of the beleaguered Rohingya minority, the international and domestic press remains under attack.
A Reuters investigation into a Rohingya mass grave led to the jailing of two of their local reporters in late 2017.
The 2015 elections saw Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) deliver a convincing win. Many domestic media outlets, including former exile organisations, have an in-house policy — whether spoken or unspoken — of lending support to the government by not being overly critical in their coverage.
The accommodation the NLD government has entered into with the military (which according to the 2008 constitution retains 25 percent of seats in parliament, amounting to effective veto rights at any attempts to change the constitution) means that media outlets are also not overly eager to confront the army. Defamation cases under clause 66(d) have soared since the 2013 Telecommunications Act was put in place. Media access to conflict areas remains sporadic.
The arrests of journalists, drivers and sources has also had a significant chilling effect on field reporting from conflict-affected ethnic areas. Civil war and low-key conflict endures in the borderlands, most notably in Kachin and Shan states. Internationally it is Rakhine State that has garnered the most coverage, as it has been the site of what experts have called ethnic cleansing — something the Myanmar government has categorically rejected.
Media access to the region remains almost completely cut off, with the exception of the occasional government-led trip. The international community and international media’s focus on the plight of the Rohingya has led to a popular perception in-country that Western nations are bent on attacking Myanmar and undermining the democratic government.
While the arrest of Reuters journalists has been met with an outcry of condemnation internationally, the response in-country has been rather muted. Journalists who report on this conflict report high levels of harassment and threats, and the level of hostility toward press which challenges the official line is at an all-time high.
Continued media reform looks likely on mainstream broadcasting and print, despite delays in tackling regulatory issues from the NLD-led government. Despite initial promises that state media would be wound up, it would appear it is here to stay. It is clear that when it comes to reporting news, old sensitivities remain. The military’s ongoing role in the country’s political scene means that, for journalists, certain topics are off-limits — or come with dire consequences.