A woman sits in a field while being interviewed by a woman journalist

Dying Myanmar media face great challenges

July 27, 2018
Challenges underscore the need for the government to support local media.

More and more people realise that the Daw Aung San Suu Kyi-led government has no understanding or acceptance of local media and that protecting press freedom is not among the government’s priorities.

“Press freedom went down under the civilian government, though we expected it would improve. This is because of the actions or inaction of the government as well as declining economic growth. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi doesn’t appear to care much about the media. She may have some other long-term political objectives, but the government doesn’t understand why the media is dying, or they may not think it is their job,” said U Sein Win, training director of the Myanmar Journalism Institute. 

The role of media has been fading since the elected civilian government took power in 2016. There is more depression in the media industry and more oppression through the electronic law and others. 

For example, two local journalists working for Reuters news agency were arrested while working on a story about the violence in northern Rakhine State. They were charged under the colonial-era State Secrets Act and face a maximum 14 years in prison. The trial of the two reporters has already passed the seven-month mark. 

There are concerns about news reporting, and the government is weak in handling the press. Statements and press releases are unclear or inadequate, especially on the highly sensitive Rakhine issue. It is difficult to do reporting in conflict areas around the country. The news flow has worsened compared to the previous administration. 

The state-owned media is unchanged and still undeveloped under the new government. State-owned newspapers are still competing with private newspapers. 

Now is the right time to transform state-owned media into public service media (PSM) rather than as tools for government propaganda. The government should have plans for reliable PSM to benefit the people, said media industry leaders. 

“The government is not doing enough. State-owned media should be managed independently. State newspapers should be privatised and turned into public listed companies. The government can take shares, but of course, not more than 20 percent. By doing so, the government may earn revenue for the use of property that belongs to state newspapers. This would level the playing field, making the market fair and competitive,” said U Thiha Saw, secretary of the Myanmar Press Council. 

‘The media industry is not well ... If the print media keeps going down, we won’t survive.’ - U Thein Tun, Myanmar Consolidated Media

Japanese NHK and DW Akademie of Germany are providing millions of dollars for a PSM project aimed at transforming state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), which has sole control of radio and TV in the country. But MRTV is making a lot of money from private TV channels like MRTV-4 and five other free-to-air digital channels that use the state network, said U Thiha Saw. 

There are only three kinds of ownership in the local media industry – state or Tatmadaw (military)-owned media; private media, which is mostly owned by businessmen; and internationally funded media. State-owned media and local media with international funding are surviving through foreign sponsorship. 

As Myanmar transitions to democracy, a lot of local and international organisations are providing financial and technical aid for development of the local media. The leading countries that give funding for Myanmar media are the US, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and other European Union members, as well as Japan and China. 

Millions of US dollars come from international organisations, though it is hard to estimate the actual amount, industry leaders said. For example, the institute which was founded in 2014, receives US$500,000 (K722.72 million) annually in foreign aid, said U Thiha Saw, a former executive director of the institute. 

Sixteen local media organisations are receiving funding from the US Agency for International Development, according to Matthew Pietz, chief of party, Civil Society and Media Project, which is funded by USAID. “A total of US$20 million was earmarked for the four-year project from 2014 to 2018, and several millions will be spent on the media industry,” said Pietz. 

The Japanese government and foundations are supporting state-owned and ethnic media groups, while at least six media organisations receive support from the Chinese government, according to industry leaders. 

However international funding for media has eased over the past three years, as part of the consequences of the Rakhine conflict as well as other global political issues. 

“No country is going to give funding for a lifetime. The international community provided funding to encourage local media during the transition to democracy. Gradually they will pull back and the funding will be reduced. Three years is maximum. Now international funding is declining,” said U Sein Win of the institute.

Meanwhile, local private media are struggling more than ever because of the nation’s declining economic growth. Local private media organisations, mainly in print, are facing serious challenges as more people turn to social media amid the exponential rise in the number of mobile phone users.  

Private daily newspapers were allowed to be published after decades-old press censorship was lifted in 2013 by the U Thein Sein government. A year later, foreign telecommunications operators were permitted to compete in the local mobile phone market. Myanmar now has 18 million active Facebook users, Facebook officials told The Myanmar Times

“The media trend is changing. Print media did well until 2014, but today, everyone uses mobile phones. Circulation and advertising income in print media has declined. It is the digital media age. For three years now, business has been bad,” said U Thaung Su Nyein, chief executive officer and managing director of Information Matrix. His company publishes 7Day newspaper, 7Day journal, Internet Journal, People Magazine, 7Day Web TV, and Duwun Digital media. 

“Myanmar media are failing. Income generation is way down. We need to transition as the media trend is changing. We need more solid teams to accomplish with 60 people what we used to do with 100 people before. We need to find other solutions for income generation,” he said. 

U Thein Tun, chairman of Myanmar Consolidated Media, which publishes The Myanmar Times English daily, and The Myanmar Times Burmese language daily and weekly journal, said the government needs to consider the problems faced by print media.

“It (the print media) is failing. The media industry is not well. The government should give some flexible (reasonable) support. State-owned newspapers seem to have exclusive rights. If the print media keeps going down, we won’t survive.

The government should consider this,” he said. 

According to research sponsored by three local media organisations, in 2016, only 20pc of total advertising spending in the country went to print media, while TV (broadcasting media) cornered the lion’s share of 73pc. 

The research also showed that about 40pc and 38pc of the country’s population reads state-owned Myanmaalin and Kyaymon newspapers, respectively, while private newspapers were read by between 2pc and 17pc of the population. 

“Smaller media groups are booming because of the digital media trend. The future of big local private media organisations is in serious question. Challenges for private media companies are getting more serious,” said U Sein Win.

Michael Pan, country director of Myanmar Internews, underscored the need for the government to support local media.   

“Business is not going well, so the budget for newsrooms in local media companies has been declining. The state should support media houses that are providing useful and reliable news for the public. Local media should be encouraged more because they are the reliable ones in news coverage and news flow. If you want adequate coverage about your domestic affairs, you need strong local media,” Pan said. 

U Thaung Su Nyein, who has been in media business for 18 years, questions the necessity of state-owned newspapers. 

“Radio and television are included the in basic right of the public. It should be public service broadcasting. We don’t need state-owned newspapers. The government can disseminate information to the public through other media.”

Myanmar media is taking two steps forward, one step back, according to observations by the international media. At the moment, local media is struggling much more than ever under a democratic government. 

“Myanmar media is dying. It is not yet falling into a sick bed, but it is having some serious problems,” said U Sein Win.