By Kristian Porter

For almost 55-years Myanmar’s military government controlled and curtailed the country’s media landscape. Now, with a newly elected government and promised reforms, there might be hope for an independent public broadcaster.
Aung San Suu Kyi mural, Vine Street, 2011. Image: Dom Pates/Creative Commons
Aung San Suu Kyi mural, Vine Street, 2011. Image: Dom Pates/Creative Commons

In October 2015 Myanmar took a significant step towards becoming a fully-fledged democratic state with the election of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) over President Thein Sein’s longstanding military regime.

Yet despite an overwhelming majority in favour of the NLD, the country is still a long way from full democratic transition. There are many obstacles: the military has retained 25% of parliamentary seats, Aung San Suu Kyi – leader of the NLD – has been denied a position as President and the country’s broadcast media is still influenced by Thein Sein’s controversial ‘Broadcast Law’.

Passed in August 2015, the Broadcast Law ensures the continuation of government-run media organisations and political control over the country’s largest media outlets and broadcasting licenses. It also maintains a legal framework “without safeguards for media independence”, according to Article 19. The law directly imposes upon any potential for free and plural media, which is essential for maintaining a strong democracy, especially when supported by an independent public broadcaster – something the law also prohibits, as stated in a recent Centre for Law and Democracy report.

However, progress has been made by the NLD, despite the party not officially taking office until April 2016. According to a Myanmar Times report, the NLD used the Myanmar Media Law Conference 2016 in Rangoon to layout its plans for reform. The report claims that the incoming government would give all media companies an equal chance of applying for broadcast licenses and would not “interfere in or influence” state-run media, but would rather assist them in transitioning to public service media outlets.

The NLD’s rhetoric of reform is certainly welcome and highly encouraging

The NLD’s rhetoric of reform is certainly welcome and highly encouraging, however obstacles still remain. A ‘Public Service Media Bill’ was proposed in 2015 to restructure MRTV, GNLM and other state-owned media outlets but was binned by government lawmakers at the behest of the current Minister of Information, Ye Htut, who sees an advantage to maintaining the audience monopoly of state-broadcasters.

Such a monopoly offers another challenge. If reforms are to take place, it will take time for new independent (public or private) broadcasters to offer a viable alternative and compete with the audience reach of state outlets – let alone the capacity to broadcast to them. More importantly, it remains to be seen how easily the new government will let go of such established state institutions and regulations.

Htin Kyaw was sworn in as Myanmar’s new President on March 30. PMA will continue to keep track on PSB developments in the country.