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|Volume 11 |Issue 39| October 05, 2012 ||
Aung Kyi, the newly appointed Minister of Information, did not mince words when he said in an international media conference recently that Myanmar would adopt the international standard of press freedom and public service media. He also revealed that representatives from Article 19 and BBC are assisting in this process.
But his deputy, U Ye Thut, went a bit further. He proudly said that the country views the free and democratic atmosphere as crucial for the developing of economy, achieving national reconciliation and integration with the international community.
If Myanmar continues on this path without reversing, it will become the group's game changer when the Asean chair comes to Naypyidaw in 457 days. At the moment no Asean member has undergone such swift changes in so short time, especially in the media sector.
After years of being chastised as a black sheep of the Asean family since it joined in 1997, now the time has come for the Thein Sien government to make his country a showcase for Asean. Both Aung Kyi and Ye Thut want to see the media freedom in the country be better than those of other Asean countries. Admittedly, the current media reform has put more than half of the Asean members to shame.
Albeit past grotesque rights violation in the past, Myanmar, however, should be given credit for promoting democracy, human rights and press freedom simultaneously. After nearly a year of scrutiny, the Asean group of national human rights institutions has recently admitted Myanmar's national human rights commission into its fold as a member. That was a giant step for a country, which was a few months ago labelled as a pariah state.
Furthermore, Myanmar is about to approve a new law that will recognise the role of civil society organisations. The first draft has been completed recently and is now being vetted and amended by politicians and civil society organisations. If it is approved in the near future, Myanmar will join Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia as countries that recognised the role of non-governmental organisations.
It is an open secret that most of the Asean members are reluctant to acknowledge the role of civil groups and perceive them as troublemakers or foreign agents. Ironically as it may seem, all Asean leaders agree to the idea of building a people-centred community. There are more than 300 non-state sponsored civil groups in the country at the moment.
Of course, the most dramatic reform since President Thein Sein formed his government last March has been in the media sector. Now all the major exiled media including the Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy have their presence in Yangon. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law was abolished in August, journalists have been put on the defensive having to ensure their reports were accurate and fair. Otherwise, they would be sued.
Some journalists viewed such actions as a form of media intimidation. However, the government defended its action saying that media has to take responsible for whatever they write or publish. In the near future, both the government and journalists hope to see a credible self-regulatory body being set up. An interim national press council was formed recently to prepare the new draft of the media law.
Journalists have already met and exchanged views among themselves to determine desirable elements in the new media law. International and regional free media advocacy groups have poured into Myanmar to assist the journalists to increase their capacity, improve their professionalism and form professional organisations to protect press freedom.
Aung Zaw, editor of Irrawaddy, an online magazine based in Chiangmai, has cautious words on the emergence of press freedom inside Myanmar. While he expressed appreciation of the general atmosphere of press freedom, he said that there is still lots of self-imposed censorship.
For instance, media inside Myanmar have never written about the whereabouts of elusive General Than Shwe and other senior officials. Sensitive issues such as the recent violence in Rakhine State and fighting between the government troops and ethnic groups were reported without impartiality. Exiled media provided more balanced views of what went on inside Myanmar much to the chagrin of local journalists.
Ye Thut told this author recently that Myanmar is learning from its mistakes of the past and wanting to set forth a new future. "So we have to be true to ourselves, media freedom is the key," he said confidently. At the moment, the Ministry of Information has been cited by local journalists and the public at large as the most reform-minded agency. Recently thousands of names of blacklisted individuals were lifted. Still, some journalists and activists are not allowed in.
One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of the state-run broadcasting service into a public service broadcasting entity. Experts from the BBC have been helping the state-owned Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV) to go through this transition in the past several months. If it succeeds, it would become a new template for other developing countries, which have emerged from totalitarian systems.
Myanmar's state owned media has not gone through any changes since the country gained independence in 1948. Therefore, the task is an enormous one trying to change the mindsets of these officials who used to serve as mouthpieces for the government. But Ye Thut said it can be done. "We are not reinventing the wheel," he declared.
Within the Asean context, what Myanmar has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment to compliance with the numerous rules.
However, in the past 18 months, Myanmar has instituted sensitive reforms, shunned by other Asean countries, swiftly and broadly. When Myanmar chairs Asean, after Brunei, it can give Asean a wake-up call by choosing the promotion of freedom and widen democratic space in Asean as its theme. After all, this is what the country has been doing quite impressively.
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