The Myanmar government needs to work with the media to craft an accurate narrative of developments in the country, given local criticism of how the country is being portrayed on the local and international stage.
This was one of the key points to come out of a panel discussion entitled,” The Role of Media in Democratic Transition”, held on the second day of the Forum on Myanmar Democratic Transition being held in Nay Pyi Taw from August 11-13.
Three panelists - U Aung Hla Tun, Vice Chairman-1, New Media Council, Kavi Chongkittavorn, Executive Director and Chief Editor of Myanmar Times, and Mrs Dunja Mijatovic, international expert on media freedom - discussed the importance of media in reporting on government developments and the changes on the road to full democracy in Myanmar.
U Aung Hla Tun told the session that the democratic transition will “never be a bed of roses” noting that Myanmar has more challenges than other countries in tackling change.
“The greatest responsibility of media today in Myanmar is safeguarding our national image which has been badly tarnished by some unethical international media reports,” U Aung Hla Tun said. “The international media often tends to sensationalize their media reports and practice agenda setting when covering sensitive issues for various reasons.”
He expressed concern over the potential for “agenda-setting” - covering a media issue more frequently than normal, so this issue attracts more attention than normal and becomes an international agenda over time.
“In the absence of influential local media, our country is forced to leave our international image in the hands of outside media. Now our international image has come at the mercy of outside media,” U Aung Hla Tun said.
“Unfortunately the Myanmar media, both state and local, are not capable enough of making the international community understand the situation on the ground inside the country. It is not because of lack of media freedom but it is because of their lack of experience and professional skills,” he said.
Part of the problem is the challenge local media organizations face in ensuring the safety of their bottom line, their profitability.
U Aung Hla Tun said draconian laws are threatening journalists. He said stakeholders are working on abolishing these laws and drafting new laws to support journalists.
“So we can expect things to improve for journalists in Myanmar due to the passage of time,” he noted.
U Aung Hla Tun said the role of media is very important in society, anytime and anywhere – safeguarding democratic transition and human rights.
Kavi Chongkittavorn told the session that the media is not the enemy of the state or anyone.
“Remember that. Media is actually very friendly,” he said.
Kavi, who recently took up the role of Executive Director and Chief Editor of Myanmar Times and has been covering Myanmar’s transition over the last few years, said that there is a unique media landscape in Myanmar.
As he noted, Myanmar media standing in a recent report by Reporters Without Frontiers had improved and was still very high in the ASEAN context, among the top four after Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand.
“The role of media is different today under democratic transition compared with under the military dictatorship,” Kavi said.
He stressed the previous government of President Thein Sein had an agenda to make sure the media accepted that the reforms the government were bringing in were real.
“The Myanmar government allowed this because the state media had no credibility – the aim was to use local media to convince not only local people but also ethnic groups and stakeholders,” Kavi said.
The Executive Director of Myanmar Times said free media and freedom of expression was good for business and good for tourism.
“Under Aung San Suu Kyi it is no longer about increasing the legitimacy of the ruling government, no longer about improving the image of Myanmar in the international community. Aung San Suu Kyi, she is the world’s top democratic icon, she does not need that one. And you don’t need to convince the population at large because you won the landslide election,” Kavi said.
“So what is the role of media under the current government? I offer you three interpretations,” he said.
“The most important is constructing the Myanmar narrative. You read Aung San Suu Kyi’s comments, you read New Light of Myanmar, you read everything that comes from the government, the government wants to construct the Myanmar narrative, which is still absent,” Kavi said.
The Myanmar narrative comes from various sources, outside, in this room and elsewhere, he noted.
He said there were few leaders who can generate a Myanmar narrative. “Aung San Suu Kyi can, a few scholars can. Some of the leaders of the ethnic groups can.”
But you need a massive, a mass of people to believe in the same thing, he added.
“Singapore is the only country that has been successful in generating a national narrative,” Kavi said.
“Singapore can overcome any adverse criticism – coming from everywhere, even from the outside world. The government is clear about its agenda, Channel News Asia, Straits Times Group, it has the same focus, that is why it is successful in creating a very strong national narrative. Myanmar needs this now and needs it very urgently,” Kavi said.
“Secondly, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has said the right thing, changing the mindset, well I will take the liberty to interpret her –‘to check the stereotype thinking and work for a new approach that will bring solutions to old problems’. That is very important because a certain mindset creates certain policy that can be obstructive to modern Myanmar. And so is the media policy of this current government. I think she wants a new media policy but she got stuck. To do so you must change the mindset, you must allow access to information,” Kavi noted.
“Without access to information, you cannot write anything. Access to information is not a privilege for journalists. It is a constitutional right. Not only to journalists. Private citizens need access to information,” he said.
“Finally, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi talks about promoting diversity. Nobody talks about diversity. Diversity is strength, not a weakness. Diversity is strength because it promotes multiculturalism, multiethnic society, interfaith dialogue and more reports of other ethnic groups,” he said.
Kavi offered advice to the Ministry of Information saying “the media is your indispensible partner – it takes two to tango.”
He stressed it was important to always keep the media in the loop. “Let them know what you are doing well ahead of time. You have to tell media about sensitive issues.”
The government must help the media. “If journalists go to jail, who is going to do the reports?” he said, to laughter from the audience.
Official statements are needed in terms of national reconciliation, the peace process, religious affairs, and community relations, he said.
During her presentation to the session, Mrs Dunja Mijatovic, an international expert on media freedom, said that in Bosnia, where she is from, the role of media was crucial, in a negative but nowadays in a very positive way.
“The road to democracy is everything but easy, it is painful, it is challenging, it is sometimes extremely sensitive because of the topics,” she said.
“Media is important. Media is not an enemy, it is an ally on the road to democracy, and therefore it is important to enable the media to thrive and prosper,” Mrs Mijatovic said.
The session moderator, Ms. Isabella Kurkowski, Country Representative Myanmar, DW Akademie, said that media is critical for democracy and for peace.
“It is a medium and its part of transition process. In the context Myanmar, Media itself is in transition. There have been a lot of positive steps taken in Myanmar since the reforms began in the period of earlier government. In recent years, Myanmar has improved its ranking in media development in comparison to the previous period. Abolition of censorship, private media licensing, capacity building engagements, setting up of media associations like press council, journalist association are some of the notable changes,” she said.