Nearly four months after the reformist Myanmar government loosened up the country's media censorship, a news editor working for a private newspaper in Yangon shared with me his hopes and concerns on the prospects of a free press in the country. My first visit to him was in late June, when the violence in Rakhine State was upsetting the government. He complained then about the strict restrictions on Myanmar media: Reports on ethnic and political issues had to be examined and get approval from the authorities to be published.
The editor's joy over the relaxation of press censorship was obvious during our second conversation. He was excited about the chance to diversify the reporting topics, accommodate diverse opinions and be critical over social issues. But he also had concerns on how to build a truly free press when giving more freedom.
"We have had little experience in a free press since 1962, and we don't know what a free press should look like." The editor said. His concerns are understandable, particularly given the lack of legislation on the new media law.
The issue of the new media law has been repeatedly postponed in Myanmar's parliament despite a series of proposed amendments. Myanmar media industry insiders are worrying that the authorities will retain a certain control over them through the law. And some reports on sensitive topics, thanks to a lack of industrial self-regulation, have fanned more conflicts and public resentment over the past few months. In order to grab attention, some media made reckless reports without confirming the facts, and some gave partial reports on events and even fabricated news.
When I was in Yangon in early November, talking with a Chinese businessman who has worked in Myanmar for over 15 years about the increasing trend of anti-Chinese reports in some media, he angrily pointed at a report on the front page of Eleven, a local newspaper, "This is nonsense! Most of China's loans to Myanmar are interest free, or at much lower interest rates than the report claims." The report claimed that China lends to Myanmar at an interest rate of 6.8 percent, but this is only the interest rate of some commercial loans. He gave me an examle: In September 2010, China agreed to provide Myanmar a 30-year interest-free loan of 30 billion yuan ($4.8 billion).
In October, some Myanmar media's reports on a Chinese company blowing up local pagodas and temples for the construction of Letpadaung copper mine project further fueled the months of protests against the project. However, the company quickly refuted the false reports by showing pictures of the pagodas and temples and inviting some reporters to the sites.
Award-wining UK journalist Nick Davies has pointed out a basic rule of the media industry in his book Flat Earth News: Stories should increase readership. In an open media era, the approximately 200 privately-run journals and over 200 magazines in Myanmar will certainly have to follow this rule.
It's said Eleven has earned an extra point among diverse private media due to its highlighting negative news against China, which the Myanmar audience is keen to hear.
The loosening of press censorship is undoubtedly a dramatic and progressive move for Myanmar's democratic transition. However, at the same time, it requires the media to be responsible. But because of decades of tight media control, journalists will be faced with difficult questions about what exact responsibility they have to bear, especially since, worryingly, most local journalists in Myanmar lack professional training.
Currently, universities and colleges in Myanmar don't have journalism majors. The only journalism degree course in Myanmar is a three-year Bachelor of Arts (Journalism) degree course at the National Administration College in Yangon, jointly sponsored by the Ministry of Information and the Ministry of Education. Few journalists in Myanmar have such degrees. Take the Myanmar Times, a relatively large bilingual privately-run newspaper. Only two of its over 40 reporters have such a degree, one of its editors told me.
The Myanmar media is happy with new freedom. But strengthening its self-discipline and improving the quality of journalists are the practical tasks it now has to undertake.
After the Leveson inquiry into phone tapping, the UK is considering tighter mechanisms to dissuade newspapers from invading people's privacy and make journalists more responsible. Myanmar's free media development is just beginning and there is a long way for it to go. In this process, it's better to be cautious about overly enjoying freedom or even abusing it.
The author is a media commentator based in Beijing. firstname.lastname@example.org