My previous Interpreter post on media freedom in Myanmar examined the Unity Journal case, focusing on commonly ignored faults in the article and the illegality of the journalists' behaviour. It also noted the severity of the punishment the journalists received.

This piece takes a broader look at Myanmar's media landscape.

Since 2011 there have been many positive changes. The Government abolished pre-publication censorship and issued new 'daily' licences to local publications. It also extended visas for international journalists to three months and passed a new media law in early 2014. However, these changes need to be contrasted with later developments which challenge President Thein Sein's rhetoric and suggest the Government still remains uncomfortable with reducing its control of the media.

For example, the Government later reduced the length of foreign journalist visa stays to one month, which some believe was a response to dissatisfaction with foreign media coverage of violence in Rakhine State, though the Government denied this. Separately, a foreign journalist was deported after being accused of taking part in a demonstrations he was covering.

In 2013, a journalist was arrested and imprisoned for alleged trespassing and then, soon after, a second journalist was arrested and imprisoned for both trespassing and defamation. These and other incidents have resulted in concerns about political interference, especially when journalists have reported on sensitive issues such as corruption.

Some actions have also created concerns about official intimidation.

For example, the Police Special Branch recently conducted 'friendly discussions' with media outlets, seeking information on finances and distribution. There were suggestions this was part of a broader investigation into certain publications, but this was not confirmed. It is unclear whether the aim was intimidation, but since the Ministry of Information is responsible for the media, it would have been a more appropriate for it to have made the enquiries.

Most recently, the Bi Mon Te Ney journal published a story that repeated false claims made by (and attributed to) a local activist group stating that Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had been appointed in an interim government that would serve until the next elections. In response, the Government arrested and charged the editors, claiming the article was misleading, defamatory and may undermine the stability of the state.

Taken together, these incidents raise questions about whether the Government knows, or cares, how its actions are perceived. It also raises questions about the Government's motivation: is it concerned with the sensitivity of the journalists' stories, the legality of their behaviour, or is it punishing them to send a message?

These incidents have also led to claims that the Government is deliberately targeting the media, which it denies, instead claiming it has to find a balance between the rights of journalists and reporting that is ethical and professional. It's a fair point, for while some journalists are experienced and properly supervised, many have not received high levels of journalistic training or appropriate supervision. The local media has acknowledged that some journalists do not always act professionally, while others have noted that there is a lot of 'irresponsible journalism' in Myanmar.

The previous military regime is largely responsible for this state of affairs. Myanmar's education system deteriorated under years of military rule, and strict censorship and oppressive tactics ensured the environment was not conducive to properly educating and training journalists.

Moreover, as the Unity Journal case attests, the current government's default response to what it considers poor journalism is prosecution, which has little educational or capacity-building value. Indeed, a continued hard-line approach could drive journalists out of mainstream media and into less regulated social media, with its lower editorial standards and quality control. It could also result in a less critical media, or as with the Unity Journal case, it could even drive publications out of business.

'Tough' responses don't provide any real guidance or assistance to the local media. The Government's new media law allows for mediation in some cases prior to legal action. Although mediation has been employed already, resulting in an out of court resolution and charges being dropped, it is not yet the default option. Infractions do need to be dealt with, especially when journalists break the law. But the Government risks losing international support and alienating the local media if it continues to prioritise harsh punishment over working with the media to resolve issues.

Recent reports suggest the Government is willing to change. In early August, President Thein Sein met with Myanmar's Interim Press Council and acknowledged it should play a larger role in mediating disputes, including prosecutions. The President also apparently instructed ministers to examine mechanisms to allow journalists better access to information, something that has been lacking.

While this appears to be a positive development, it is unclear whether it will work in practice. Until we see how the Government responds to future reports on sensitive topics such as those covered in the Unity Journal article, it will be hard to gauge whether its attitude has changed.

Photo by Flickr user Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.