The Burmese government possesses the power to protect minorities, promote freedom of expression, and encourage democratic political reforms. But instead of using its influence for good, the government further consolidates its power by denying independent exile media the freedom to report on controversial topics such as the persecution of Rohingya Muslims, oppressive censorship laws, and the military’s control of the “democratic” government.
Earlier this week, Internews hosted a panel on “The Business of Media and the Information Environment in the New Myanmar: Fresh Perspectives.” The panelists highlighted ways the government disrupts the media market through censorship laws and monopolizing advertisement and circulation revenue.
Alison Campbell, Humanitarian Partnerships Manager, Internews Myanmar Project
Christina Fink, Professor of Practice of International Affairs, George Washington University
Michelle Foster, International media management and marketing consultant for independent news sources
Foster talked about the government’s overbearing presence in the media market. More businesses are willing to advertise in the more well known state-owned media sources, which gives state-owned media more advertisement revenue. Also, poorer rural villagers primarily consume state-owned media because it is the cheapest option, which allows state-owned media to enjoy economic leverage over independent exile media. As media publications rely on advertisement and circulation revenue in order to continue in the media market, independent exile media struggles to survive with minimal revenue. Therefore, independent exile media loses to the state-owned media in two ways – first, through loss of revenue, and second, through its failure to deliver their message to the rural population. Without access to news on human rights issues, there is a smaller chance of collective community movements in the rural communities to push the government to address controversial issues.
The government does not dominate the media market only by means of the law of supply and demand; it also actively suppresses independent exile media. Independent exile media advertise their publications in state-owned media in order to spread awareness of human rights issues in Burma. But in February, state-owned media publications denied them freedom of speech when they censored ads promoting coverage of human rights abuses and land confiscation in independent exile media publications. Also in February, the Burmese Ministry of Information outright denied visa requests of foreign journalists who previously worked at independent exile media publications. For other journalists granted visas, the government shortened the length of the visa term without officially notifying them of the policy change.
Fink briefed the audience of the government’s interference in the media sphere including jailing journalists for reporting on a government chemical weapons factory and ratifying the restrictive printing and publishing enterprise law that limits newspapers from reporting on certain topics and gives the government discretion to issue publishing licenses.
The panelists offered an alternative narrative to the Obama Administration’s portrait of Burma as a democratic success story. However, they did not address the Burmese government’s active role as an oppressor of minorities through media. In response to a question about state-owned media and hate speech, Campbell erroneously claimed that state-owned media is not driving hate speech at all. In reality, government officials use state-owned media to spread misinformation and lies about the existence and nature of violence against minority groups, deny violence against Rohingya Muslims in Arakan State, and promote anti-ethnic sentiment.