With the advent of democratic and social reforms post-2010, there was much optimism in Myanmar and internationally about the prospects for Myanmar’s rapid development, including the broadcast sector, and potential for the country to be a regional economic power with its vast natural and human resources.
Nearly a decade later, it remains clear that there is still much work to be done if the early dreams for Myanmar’s development are going to be as successful as hoped. There remain critical fissures in the fabric of Myanmar society as well as in numerous areas of economic development, including broadcast media.
I wish to speak briefly today on what needs to be done with regard to reforms and advances in the media industry, and specifically the broadcast sector, in order to realize the full potential for Myanmar broadcast media. If handled properly, with its vast outreach, I believe the sector can play a critical role in advancing the development and social cohesion of the country.
Let me start with the importance of realizing a level playing field and fair competition in the broadcast industry. If we ask ourselves honestly whether Myanmar’s broadcast sector today exhibits either of these characteristics, our answer must be an emphatic ‘no’. Fair competition means a just, open and equitable competition between business competitors. And a healthy competition can improve a country’s economic performance, open business opportunities and reduce costs.
But, today’s broadcast landscape in Myanmar remains highly skewed, with control of infrastructure and market access restricting competition to the extent that the holder enjoys a significant degree of market power. This makes it extremely difficult and costly for new entrants to gain market access and expand their presence.
Ultimately, in such an environment, the rights enjoyed allow the holder to gain a competitive advantage over rivals such that it may engage in exclusionary or discriminatory practices and thereby restrict competition. In short, something akin to the opposite of a level playing field exhibiting fair competition.
I encourage the realization of a Competition Law of Myanmar to help address this shortcoming. However, the law should only be applied to intervene in cases of observable restrictions on competition or evidence of likely violations of law.
And when I speak of a level and fair playing field, I speak not only of the Yangon-dominated media and broadcast market. It is just as important that we embrace the role that ethnic and regional media outlets can and should play in Myanmar’s media scene and what they offer in their capacity to serve as a component of national unification.
While Yangon-based media can face limitations and difficulties reporting about regional affairs, regional and ethnic media can fill this critical void. In this regard, the role of ethnic media is important for Myanmar society. Despite Myanmar’s many different ethnic groups, they share one thing in common, and that is to provide a platform for their communities to be part of the ongoing political changes in Myanmar.
Ethnic media have access to news that mainstream media may find difficult to acquire. For example, looking at the Kokang conflict of 2015, in cases such as this it is ethnic media that become a window into such events when information is difficult to collect.
However, many ethnic and regional media face an immediate impediment to their long-term viability owing to a dependency on donors, often times international donors. This is a problem given that they must compete with the mainstream Myanmar media. Ethnic media groups also note that they do not receive adequate support from the government.
This provides an appropriate lead into the importance of support from government, not only for ethnic and regional media, but mainstream media as well. Quite simply, business is not going well for many media houses that have been trying to take root since the onset of reforms. And broadcast media is no exception. Budgets for newsrooms in local media companies simply cannot be covered with the access to revenues currently available. This, again, speaks to the need for a level and fair playing field.
The state should support media houses that are providing useful and reliable news for the public. Moreover, local media should be encouraged more as they provide reliable news coverage and contribute to the flow of news. One lesson I would like to stress, is that if you want adequate coverage about your domestic affairs, you need strong local, and independent, media.
We also need to amend the New Media Law in Myanmar to include a clause for putting the government spending on advertisements in the private media. It will help the revenues of the struggling private media houses in Myanmar.
But, while we welcome and need state support for our evolving broadcast media sector, the state must also be comfortable in the self-regulation of the industry. I define self-regulation as a combination of standards setting out the appropriate codes of behaviour for media that are necessary to support freedom of expression, while also detailing how practitioners will be monitored and held accountable.
Self-regulation preserves independence of the media and protects it from partisan government interference. It is more efficient as a system of regulation as the media understand their own environment better than government.
Additionally, it is less costly to government because the industry bears the cost and can be more flexible than government regulation. Self-regulation may also encourage greater compliance because of peer pressure, while it can also drive up professional standards by requiring organizations to think about and even develop their own standards of behaviour. Which leads us to the importance of professionalism and ethical values in media.
At the forefront of these values are the principles of truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality and fairness. There is a conscious balance here between freedom and responsibility, a recognition that the freedom of media to operate independently of government control has to sit alongside responsibilities in the exercising of that freedom.
There need to be in place detailed guidelines that cover issues such as accuracy, fairness, impartiality, privacy, the avoidance of harm, the responsibilities of the media during elections, conflicts of interest and the coverage of sensitive issues such as conflict, religion, crime and sexuality.
And alongside a journalist code of ethics we should have guarantees of editorial independence so that journalists are able to operate free of direct control of the commercial interests of owners.
Editorial independence is taken to mean the right of journalists to decide what to cover, how to cover it and where to place the story.
Additionally, the creation of a Media Hub would greatly facilitate media operations throughout the country, serving as a reliable information source on the conduct and duties of media, including broadcast, and their responsibilities in engaging with both domestic and foreign audiences. The Hub will assist in ensuring the accurate coverage of events and stories emanating from Myanmar.
Further, a Media Hub could abet in facing the challenges arising from online and social media. As younger generations increasingly spend more time consuming broadcast programming via online platforms, traditional broadcast TV is forced to adapt its approach in reaching and retaining audiences.
One recent study of the trends in international media found that consumers spend around five hours a day between online and print press, game consoles, music streaming and broadcast radio and nearly seven hours online more broadly on a daily basis.
Clearly, when taking into account changing consumer expectations and behaviours, it is not difficult to see the challenges facing traditional TV. Online TV, with its anytime-anywhere access and vast content library has a distinct advantage. Moreover, consumer attention in this crowded environment has become harder to maintain.
Meanwhile, social media is increasingly becoming the go-to source for Myanmar citizens in their consumption of news. However, we have repeatedly seen first-hand the dangers that can arise from an over-reliance on social media, with the inherent threat of “fake news” and its potential to spread unchecked.
How will we, the Myanmar broadcast industry, rise up and meet the challenges faced by online and social media? It is up to us to ensure our ongoing relevance in the long-term.
One advantage we do have is that commentators often cite the unrivalled reach and quality of TV advertising as proof of its continued relevance, especially considering rising consumer disillusionment with online advertising. However, individual media houses and their broadcast components can only take advantage of this asset in an environment characterized by the aforementioned level and fair playing field.
But, if we can succeed in creating a broadcast sector that is level and fair, embracing of a diversity in broadcast options, regulated in line with a best practices approach and generally characterized by a professional and ethical approach in our work – then I believe the Myanmar broadcast industry can succeed in making news and programming significant, interesting and relevant while also providing a forum for public criticism and compromise.
And if we can do this, then we will have come a long way in fulfilling our role and responsibility in the realization of a prosperous and inclusive Union for all.