Wed 13 Jun 2012
Filed under: Media,Opinion,Other
ABOLISHING media censorship is a prerequisite for countries transforming from systems of centralised, authoritarian governance to more liberal and inclusive democratic societies. Myanmar is no exception.
As Myanmar walks the reform path and transitions to democracy, outdated customs and policies not in line with democratic principles need to be abandoned. Censorship is but one such policy.
As a journalist who has worked under pre-publication censorship for most of my career, I have always hoped to see censorship abolished. So I was overjoyed when I heard the announcement made by an official at the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) that newspapers, or rather news journals, would no longer need to submit content before publication from the end of June.
This good news should be welcomed by both journalists and the public. Independent and vibrant news media is essential for the democratic system, in terms of both uncovering truth and promoting transparency more generally.
Journalists in Myanmar have been handcuffed by the rules and regulations imposed by successive governments for several decades. But the changing political landscape after U Thein Sein was sworn in as president has created opportunities for Myanmar journalists, with the government loosening its grip on the media.
As these changes were taking place, I conducted a survey of Myanmar journalists from August 2011 to March 2012 with the support of Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based in Oxford. The majority of the 77 working journalists said U Thein Sein’s government had relaxed censorship of the media compared with the previous military government.
Publishers also want to see a liberalisation of the media industry, and foresee that the post-censorship period will present good opportunities for expansion of particularly print media.
However, liberalisation will also create challenges for media companies and individual journalists, particularly because it is likely to herald fierce competition between rival papers.
Since most publishing houses in Myanmar are family-owned ventures, the anticipated influx of new investment in the industry could force small companies out of business. Over the next few years, we are likely to see fierce competition between old and new media companies trying to take control of the market. Publishers who are not financially strong will be forced to sell up to larger competitors.
As in the former communist countries in Eastern Europe, liberalisation of the media market could favour wealthy individuals or groups and lead to them controlling the market in the future.
While mounting investment in the media sector should create more employment opportunities for journalists and attract young people to the profession, the current lack of human resources could also force newspapers to compete to attract qualified and experienced journalists. In the meantime more and more young journalists will be recruited to meet demand.
The worst-case scenario is that the large pool of relatively inexperienced but dynamic young journalists increases tension in our transitioning society. Competition between newspapers for “scoops”, sales and a larger share of the market could encourage polarisation between media organisations and personal attacks. As a result, the public could lose trust in the press.
This scenario can be prevented, however, by establishing journalism training schools to provide proper training to budding journalists and allowing the formation of journalist associations.
Some progress has been made on the latter and while I welcome the founding of journalist associations in Myanmar, I expect these associations will face enormous challenges. Regulating media in a liberal democracy is a sensitive and difficult task. In Britain, the Press Complaints Commission, a body that settles dispute between newspapers and the public, receives thousands of complaints annually. Most recently, the phone hacking scandal has served to undermine the reputation of a number of newspapers.
We cannot guarantee that similar problems will not take place in Myanmar when the free market environment encourages aggressive marketing strategies, including journalists’ desire to get the scoop on their rivals. Under pressure from their editor or publisher, journalists might use unethical reporting techniques to beat their rivals. Indeed, some journalists responded in my survey that they were worried that the absence of censorship would encourage unethical reporting that in turn could damage the credibility and reputation of the press. They saw the censorship board as a referee and said it sometimes acted as a mediator to solve disputes between the press and businesses or individuals.
While we should welcome greater press freedom in Myanmar, we must remember that it is our duty to ensure that ethical reporting and quality journalism are not lost in the battle for market dominance that is likely to ensue.
Kyaw Thu is a former reporter and editor at The Myanmar Times. He completed a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in 2012. His study on the impact of censorship in Myanmar can be read at http://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fellowships/journalist-fellows/journalist/kyaw-thu.html