‘We have propaganda in our brain’: A conversation on press freedom in Burma
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‘We have propaganda in our brain’: A conversation on press freedom in Burma

MENTION “Myanmar government” to Yin Yadanar Thein, the co-founder of Free Expression Myanmar, and she asks back: “Which government? The NLD (National League for Democracy party-led government of Aung San Suu Kyi), or the military?”

The question captures the nature of politics in Burma (Myanmar) some seven years into its transition following some six decades of authoritarian control, isolation and media repression in the Southeast Asian country of 53.4 million people.

It also defines the context of the slippery space that Myanmar’s media find themselves in. In today’s Burma, journalists do find themselves in a more open political space, but it is also a more risky one. It has little protection for the media as an institution crucial to development and democratic change, and continues to wrestle with habits borne of decades of political repression.

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Burmese journalist and co-founder of Free Expression Myanmar, Yin Yadanar Thein. Source: Reporting ASEAN/ Johanna Son

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In this chat with Reporting ASEAN’s Johanna Son in Bangkok in May, the 30-year-old Yin, who speaks in rapid-fire fashion, explains why the NLD-led government has been a disappointment in regards to media freedom. Burma’s government needs dismantle the country’s assortment of repressive laws on information and media, she says, instead of making new laws in piecemeal fashion while leaving the overall infrastructure weak. Yin previously worked with the rights group Article 19 in Yangon, as well in camps for internally displaced people in north-western Rakhine state and with United Nations special mechanisms in Geneva.

Burma’s political transition is a reminder that holding elections and changing governments are far easier than growing into the culture of a more democratic society.

AC: Ahead of World Press Freedom Day, Free Expression Myanmar released the results of a survey showing that 48% of Burmese journalists say there is less media freedom. Did that surprise you?

Yin Yadanar Thein: No, because we can see that things are getting worse. Many journalists have been oppressed by the legal framework. They got legal threats and threats from the community. The legal threat is much more important because the government has the main, key role to take the responsibility for stopping legal threats to the journalists. Instead of stopping that, the government itself is using the oppressive law to protect themselves.

AC: Over the last seven years or so, Burma started on its journey of political transition. So there is now more democracy, but also less press freedom?

YYT: The (ruling) National League for Democracy, when they were on the opposite side, cooperated with the media so much. Aung San Suu Kyi said ‘media is not the enemy’ and this kind of stuff. But she neglected, and her party, her government, neglected the media.

So yes, we got the government we want, we voted for, you can (say) a people’s government. But they don’t have any power. They have the moral power from the people, but they don’t have the power like the military (do) … The NLD cannot handle the military much but her (Suu Kyi’s) priority is national reconciliation, so she only focused on that. So at that point, she indulged the military so much. So at this point, press freedom is being neglected by the government.

AC: Why is it being neglected, when the country is definitely more free? How can this happen?

YYT: The country is not free, actually. Previously, we were only afraid of the military government. But now, we have – it’s really very obvious in the conflict areas – we got threats – you know bodily threats, or they (journalists) need to think about the NLD government also and they need to look at the threat coming from the military … For the print media, we still have the Ministry of Information and we need to register to set up a media company.

AC: You mean obtain a licence?

YYT: Yes, like a licence because mostly they (the Ministry of Information) give the licences. They don’t reject, they give the licence to almost every media company. But of course, they are sitting in the role to monitor and they are also giving the licence, so they can easily take it back.

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AC: Is that a bad habit from the past?

YYT: Yes, it is a bad habit. In our country, the NLD is copying what the previous government did to the media. She (Suu Kyi) put in a speech that oh, our country (has) no digital literacy, so we still need this law (licencing media). So it is really conservative and then it is the same with the military mindset. Rather than educating people to promote media literacy, digital literacy, in their formal education, informal education, she still wants to censor … by the law. They are doing what the military did to them previously.

AC: What about self-censorship?

YYT: In 2012, the previous semi-military government abolished pre-publication censorship, but there is no protection mechanism (for journalists). So when the journalists speak out, there are many offence laws. So they are hopeless and they feel like – ‘Okay, even the Myanmar News Media Council cannot protect us, so it is better to censor (ourselves)’.

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Detained and handcuffed Reuters journalist Wa Lone speaks to media after a court hearing in Yangon, Myanmar May 2, 2018. Source: Reuters/Ann Wang

AC: Do you mean that there is no law that guarantees freedom of information?

YYT: Yes. That’s why I say we need holistic media reform. Of course, the previous government and now the NLD government are trying to make the media law. The broadcasting law has many processes, now the right to information law is coming also. But it doesn’t mean (there is real) legal reform – because we need holistic legal reform. Even if the laws are there, when the journalists speak out, still there are many, many criminal laws that are threaten them, like sedition, defamation, the official secrets act, or trespassing law, unlawful association act.

AC: Does the average person in Burma agree and believe that there needs to be a free press? Would society protect journalists if they were arrested?

YYT: The history of the media is since 1960, about that time. Since that time, we, myself included, have grown up with military, state-owned media, so we have propaganda in our brain.

So the community, generally, they think the media is like an enemy, because they only focus on sovereignty – we need to protect our sovereignty, we need to protect our territory, that is why information is not a priority. So it is really obvious in the religious conflict in Rakhine state – the media have come under attack by the community. So they (the public) don’t support, they don’t think press freedom is crucial.

People are poor. People are surviving and struggling for their daily needs, food, so they are not really interested in other things. They don’t have much time to think about how much press freedom, freedom of expression has a fundamental role for changing to a democratic society.

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AC: Is there a dialogue between civil society and the government on legal reforms that affect the media?

YYT: Many CSOs (civil society organisations) and many media freedom organisations have been trying to get in the consultation process. We have to create (this), because the government never created a consultation process with the CSOs whenever they draft a law. So we give inputs. The government listens – listens means sitting there and listen to us physically. But when they adopt the law, they never reflect our inputs.

AC: Since 2011, what are some things that have improved for the media?

YYT: An improvement is that previously we didn’t have independent news media outlets. Now we have them (in print). They still need a licence from the government but they are independent, meaning there are private print media. Also there are exiled media that exist in our country and (they) are coming back, so it is progressive. The other thing is we are now in the process of writing is an access to information law. It says government departments shall release information for the journalists when they ask. But it doesn’t say anything if they don’t release the information, if they reject (doing this).

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Myanmar’s State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi talks to media during a news conference after she met with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Naypyitaw, Myanmar November 15, 2017. Source: Reuters

AC: So is the bigger problem not just the law, not just the journalists’ capability, not just the state – but a kind of mindset? Would it be right to say that maybe there is no agreement yet, or it’s not deep enough, that people need to have information?

YYT: It is really a good question, because this is like the ‘side effects’ of the right to information law we are worrying about. Because when we have a law, yes there is a law but it will not be applicable if people don’t know about it. So nowadays, we engage with the marginalised groups, individual people on how they understand their right to information. They don’t understand. They think okay, the government released information because the government owns the information. That’s why we need education, much more education and we cannot depend only on formal education like schools, universities.

AC: Is social media a friend or an enemy of media freedom at this point in Burma?

YYT: Social media, according to our survey, creates and brings diverse audiences for the media and also because of social media, people can get information quickly. This is really the trend. But social media is not simply the enemy itself – it is just a canal, right? You can (have the information) flow within that canal. But the government needs to make sure the information flow is healthy. ‘Make sure’ means they cannot regulate the information.  So it is not the enemy but the government has a responsibility not to create Facebook (to be) just like our freedom-of-expression enemy.

SEE ALSO: Burma: Court accepts testimony claiming police framed Reuters journalists

AC: If you’re a journalist in Burma today, what things do you need to know?

YYT: The first thing is you need to make sure you know the local laws impacting to your work, you need to know the code of conduct released by the media council … If you don’t understand their definition, you need to discuss with the council. Because if you are unlucky and you get trailed by other stakeholders or non-state actors or persons, the media council has a role to act like an extra witness for the media. But the media council will not think to be the witness for you if the case is out of code of conduct.

Another thing is to fact check, because nowadays in our media outlets, their priority is news to beat the other media outlets. So their quality is getting low for (doing) fact checks … You never make any satire article against and referring to the military. Even though satire is just opinion … they say ‘oh you criticise me, go to the jail’. If you are not the challenging type, don’t touch the military.

By Johanna Son, an editor based in Bangkok for nearly two decades who follows regional and ASEAN issues. She manages the Reporting ASEAN program and series.