Burma's Press Freedom Ranking: Twelve-spot climb up but still needs drastic improvement

Some might argue the upward trend that sees Burma made a twelve-spot climb up, where freedom of press index is concerned, is a positive improvement, but others are of the opinion that in spite of the so-called progress freedom of press and robust strengthening of the media as a whole is still a long way off and that there are areas which still need drastic improvement, if the media is to play an important role in the democratization process.

The index climb up

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) released of their 2017 World Press Freedom Index on April 26, Burma or Myanmar managed to jump up 12 spots on the list this year, coming in at 131 out of 180 countries, amid claims of mounting official censorship under the Section 66(d) of  Telecommunications Law. Burma was ranked 143 in 2016, and the year before that, 144.

While East Timor, which ranked 98, is the only south-east Asian country to break the top 100, Burma is now the the third on the list among the official Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN). It is topped by Indonesia (124), the Philippines (127) and followed by Cambodia (132).

The rest of the ASEAN nations were ranked, in descending order with Thailand (142), Malaysia (144), Singapore (151), and Brunei (156).

Globally, Norway came in first with a global score of 7.6 and North Korea was placed last, as widely expected.

But Burma is labeled as a ‘difficult situation’ on RSF’s Freedom of the Press map despite of its improved twelve-spot climb up, upward trend, its global score actually dropped by 3.66. In 2016, it scored 45.48 and 41.82 for this year 2017.

The RSF's press freedom map offers a visual overview of the scores of all the countries in the index, with color categorization assigned as follows:

·        From 0 to 15 points: Good (white)
·        From 15.01 to 25 points: Fairly good (yellow)
·        From 25.01 to 35 points: Problematic (orange)
·        From 35.01 to 55 points: Bad (red)
·        From 55.01 to 100 points: Very bad (black)

Meanwhile on May 2, the eve of World Press Freedom Day, fourteen media freedom and rights groups including PEN Myanmar, the Myanmar Journalist Association, Burma News International (BNI), Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), Myanmar IT for Development Organization, Yangon Journalism School, and Pyi Gyi Khin released their “scorecard”, said to be held at the PEN Myanmar office in Rangoon. Assessing improvements to the free expression environment across six areas, the NLD was given a score of 8 out of a maximum 60 points.

An eight-page assessment report on the country’s landscape concerning freedom of expression under one year of NLD government leadership, the mentioned local lobbyists and rights groups claimed that there is “no clear path forward” developed by the new government concerning the issue.
“Acknowledging that the challenges for reversing decades of repression are significant, [assessment] participants pointed to multiple areas in which no clear path forward has been explicated by the new government, let alone embarked upon,” the assessment stated, according to The Irrawaddy report of May 2.

RSF criteria categories and indicators

The degree of freedom available to journalists in 180 countries is determined by pooling the responses of experts to a questionnaire devised by RSF. This qualitative analysis is combined with quantitative data on abuses and acts of violence against journalists during the period evaluated, said the RSF website.

Accordingly, the translated questionnaire into 20 languages including English, Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Indonesian and Korean is sent to journalists, media lawyers, researchers and other media specialists selected by RSF in the 180 countries covered by the Index. Each country is assigned a score based on the answers provided by these experts and on the figures for acts of violence and abuses against journalists during the previous year.

The questionnaire focuses on such criteria categories as the country’s performance includes the following:

1.     Pluralism - Measures the degree to which opinions are represented in the media;
2.     Media independence - Measures the degree to which the media are able to function independently of sources of political, governmental, business and religious power and influence.
3.     Environment and self-censorship - Analyses the environment in which news and information providers operate.
4.     Legislative framework - Measures the impact of the legislative framework governing news and information activities.
5.     Transparency - Measures the transparency of the institutions and procedures that affect the production of news and information.
6.     Infrastructure - Measures the quality of the infrastructure that supports the production of news and information.
A seventh indicator based on data gathered about abuses and acts of violence against journalists and media during the period evaluated is also factored into the calculation.
7.     Abuses -Measures the level of abuses and violence.

Each indicator is given a score between 0 and 100, according to the RSF.

RSF accusations and high profile cases

The current analysis of RSF on Burma wrote “media freedom unfortunately does not have a place amongst the new government’s priorities,” and stressed that “self-censorship continues in connection to government officials and military officers.”

“The authorities continue to exert pressure on the media and even intervene directly to get editorial policies changed,” the analysis added.

Remarkably, on its barometer indicators no journalists were shown as being killed, even though
in December last year, RSF called on authorities to ‘step up investigation’ into Daily Eleven newspaper reporter Soe Moe Tun’s death, and just earlier this April, for a ‘thorough investigation’ into the death of Iron Rose editor Wai Yan Heinn. Last year November, it also campaigned for the release of Eleven Media’s CEO and editor-in-chief, who were being held on defamation charges.

On December 13 last year, reporter Soe Moe Tun was found bludgeoned to death on the side of a road in Monywa, in Burma's northwestern region. The reporter had covered many sensitive topics, including illegal logging, before his killing. Recent media reports indicate that no progress has been made in solving the case.

On April 16, the body of Wai Yan Heinn, the 27-year-old publisher and editor of Iron Rose, was found slumped in a chair with 15 stab wounds in his in his chest and abdomen, after neighbors reported a strong odor coming from his first-floor office in Pazundaung township in the commercial capital Yangon, according to the RFA report of April 21.

Earlier in October 2014, freelance journalist Aung Kyaw Naing, also known as Par Gyi, was shot and killed in military custody in Burma's southeastern Mon State. A military court acquitted two soldiers of his death the following month. Police stopped investigating a separate civil complaint in April 2016 after a court ruled the reporter had died of "unnatural causes," news reports at the time said.   

A total of 66 people have been charged under article 66 (d) since the law’s adoption in 2013 - 54 of them since the current government took over, according to RSF report of April 12.

Under the Section 66(d) Telecommunications Law, “extorting, coercing, restraining wrongfully, defaming, disturbing, causing undue influence or threatening to any person by using any Telecommunications Network,” could be penalized.

One such most outstanding case is a by-lawsuit filed by the Rangoon regional chief minister against the CEO of Eleven Media; and the other, a researcher Myo Yan Naung Thein to a six-month jail term for criticizing the head of Burma’s armed forces on the Facebook.
Strengthening private media

Regarding the strengthening of private media landscape, an interesting Editorial Talk in the Democratic Voice of Burma discussed and aired the present situation and some sort of remedial solution that might be useful on April 29, which is highly interesting.

The Voice editor in chief Kyaw Min Swe pointed out that the hope for the situation to be better following the regime change has not materialized, even minimally.

He said: “Besides the government and private media, there are semi-government and semi-official media also. And as such, theoretically there is bound to be competition in the market place, where the private media has to compete with the government. But the problem is the government that is supposed to be the judge is also competing, which is a hindrance to the strengthening of the private media sector. And with its competition comes the inequality to information accessibility, as has been heard time and again, like banning entry of the private media to government press conference and government related issues.”

He suggested that “the government should drastically reduced its media participation as a producer as it is not a proper thing to be competing with the private media; should promote policies that would lift up the country's economy, as it is essential for the private media to survive, which is partially dependent on the buying power – like insertion of advertisement in the media - of the business people; and should instill media literacy awareness to all government institutions, including the Military, the public and the media people themselves.”

Media literacy for the media people is essential to become professionalized and matured so that the government could not say that it has to be there as the private media is not up to the standard, he said.

“Media Literacy is a 21st century approach to education. It provides a framework to access, analyze, evaluate, create and participate with messages in a variety of forms — from print to video to the Internet. Media literacy builds an understanding of the role of media in society as well as essential skills of inquiry and self-expression necessary for citizens of a democracy,” according to the Center for Media Literacy (CML), an educational organization that provides leadership, public education, professional development and educational resources nationally and internationally.

It is assumed that The Voice editor in chief's assumption on media literacy is identical to those of   the CML definition.

Likewise, Thiha Saw of Myanmar Press Council also expressed the necessity to instill media literacy to both the government and the media, including the public. He said the public sector is becoming important as it is now the consumer and as well, the producer, made necessary by the social media platform. He emphasized the need for the government and media to have understanding and not see each other as enemy, besides promoting capacity-building for all concerned.

Outlook and perspective

Looking at the assessment of the RSF and as well the domestic media players, the areas of monitoring media ownership; government's competition with private media in media landscape; and lack of trust and understanding between the government and the media need to be addressed.

Monitoring media ownership in Burma is not a problem. The government media and also those belonging to the military are not a secret and broadcast media like radio and TV were the monopoly of the state, until December 2012 when the Thein Sein regime opened up the print media section to private sector. And with the broadcast media, only lately on April 11, has the government allowed some private media to enter the fold, announcing that five private companies will be given broadcasting licenses. This marks a new beginning in Burma to promote broadcasting service. The current free-to-air TV channels are dominated by state-run agencies and their messages.

Thus reducing and withdrawing the involvement of the government from the media landscape is the most pressing issue to create a level playing field, followed by instilling of media literacy awareness and trust-building coupled with good faith between itself and the media, which would enable to see the latter not as an enemy but as essential media watchdog that is part and parcel of the whole democratization process.  

For a start, it would do the government good, if it could first abolish the draconian Section 66(d) that has been castrating the media to practice self-censorship, hampering objective reporting and curtailing freedom of expression, which is not at all supportive or beneficial to the ongoing democratization process.


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