Myanmar: Media Fragility and Space for Authoritarianism during COVID-19

Photography: Awareness training to community in second week of April 2020. © ILO/Mawk Kon Local Development Organization (MKLDO), @flickr

This race to combat the infection through use of force and the expansion of state power has been called an “epidemic of emergency” by Fionnuala Ni Aolain, UN Special Rapporteur on the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism. Authoritarian characteristics and practices related to COVID-19 can be more effectively implemented in countries which are already familiar with centralized command and where democratic consensus is less required in managing the crisis. When COVID-19 meets authoritarian or highly centralized administrations, emergency measures are likely to be enforced in a top-down nature with few checks and balances. This can be effective in allowing the state apparatus to undertake prompt emergency response without much resistance or delay. However, when the centralized control results in failure, it can be lethal as accountability is not guaranteed and checks and balances are non-existent. Existence of free and fair journalistic practices can help to counter any authoritarian overreach. In countries with a long tradition of independent media, society benefits from journalists who go to the frontline.

The term authoritarianism can be used to refer to “a form of government or politics that concentrates power, minimizes political pluralism and represses civil society, often in the name of confronting a supposed ‘enemy’ within or without”. China, Singapore, and Thailand are a few examples. In the case of Myanmar, it is now ruled by an elected, semi-civilian government led by the National League for Democracy. However, authoritarian structures inherited from the previous military regimes are still kept alive. As far as media freedom is concerned, Myanmar media lags behind many of its Southeast Asian counterparts in terms of development and diversity; the country has a long history of censorship and government/military control of the media.

Silencing the Media Instead of Reforming

Considering the possible implications that new emergency measures can have for human rights, global civil society organizations in Southeast Asia have urged governments not to use any emergency period as a pretext for consolidating power and silencing opposition voices. A collective statement signed by 251 local civil society organizations warned that they “are worried that the unchecked power during the time of emergency and its utilization sometime eroded the human dignity and democratic values, while allowing more control to those who control political and economic power. This was exacerbated by the realities of the country whose control was ceded to only a handful of elites.” In Myanmar, until August 2012, all print media was subject to pre-printing censorship, and today the government also runs three daily newspapers with vastly superior distribution networks and access to advertisers compared to private outlets. A top broadcaster, MRTV, has been run by the Ministry of Information (MOI) since the 1980s, and Myawaddy TV has been the mouthpiece of the army since 1995. Independent media has a much more recent history, after a five-decade long absence in the country. Two private media companies, Shwe Than Lwin and Forever Group, were handpicked by previous governments and subsequently allowed to form a joint venture with MOI, while five other newcomers have been left without a level playing field. Compared with Thailand which has more than ten thousand community radio stations, radio in Myanmar is in a stage of infancy. In 2016, media practitioners estimated that about 75 percent of advertising revenues went to the state broadcasters. Editorial independence is not guaranteed under the current licensing system and the government can interfere in the newsroom’s decisions when it desires: for instance, the government banning the use of the word “Rohingya” on television shows. Although journalists in Myanmar anticipated gaining a truly free media in the new setting of democratic transition, acts of oppression under the so-called democratic government have dimmed their hopes in the last five years. Now COVID-19 is revealing how critical the role of a free press is in developing an informed citizenry and formulating proper policy responses. However, years of restrictions are taking their toll during the COVID-19 crisis.

Myanmar’s Position in Fighting Back Against the Pandemic

Despite its initially slow and indecisive response, Myanmar has since taken forceful action in its approach to crisis management since the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. On 30 March, an emergency task force was set up comprising members of both military-controlled and civilian ministries for better law enforcement and to maintain stability during the pandemic. Since the beginning of April at least eight of Myanmar’s states and regions have imposed curfews, strictly enforced “stay at home” guidelines, suspended public transportation networks, and banned gatherings of more than five people. These measures have meant that in times of panic or uncertainty, it is easier for the leaders even at the village and ward administration levels to ensure people’s compliance.

With a military budget three times higher than that of healthcare, it is not surprising that Myanmar’s healthcare system is underdeveloped and it could have easily been overwhelmed if social distancing and other preventative measures had proved ineffective at curbing the spread of COVID-19. According to the World Bank, as of 20 March 2020 Myanmar has only one intensive care bed per every 141,000 people and one ventilator per 217,000. In the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), Myanmar is ranked 72 out of 195 countries. Despite concerns over the high possibility of transmission, Myanmar had reported only 261 cases of the virus and six deaths by 12 June 2020. There are concerns that the number of infections might be found to be higher if the level of testing is increased. Its current capacity is still low and by 24 May, only 17,674 cases had been tested, with an average of 300 cases per day since the announcement of the first infection on 23 March. Myanmar expanded its testing capacity in June to 600–1000 cases per day.

In this context, the media can optimize its role as a source of public health education and help the national healthcare providers and policymakers by reporting the situation on the ground. In an ideal situation, the government would collaborate with journalists and consider them as major stakeholders to effectively communicate risks and verified information, as demand for information is mounting. Tha Lun Zaung Htet, Joint Secretary II of the Myanmar Press Council[1] noted that space for independent media had been shrinking dramatically. “Criminalization of journalists is getting worse during COVID-19 by using multiple laws as instrument[s] for oppression”, he said. Many leading members of the press also claimed that accessing information during COVID-19 posed a great challenge.

Direct and Indirect Restrictions Against Independent Media

With little or no oversight over the exercising of power, the emergency directives have emboldened the authoritarian tendencies of local administrative bodies in different cities, towns, and villages. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, an organization run by former political prisoners, compiled a list of media reports between 20 March to 20 May which identified up to 670 arrests for breaking curfew and quarantine or other emergency measures. Criminal penalties for these cases vary from one to nine-months’ imprisonment. Some are released after paying a fine. Most of these cases received rapid verdicts in court without proper trials and the accused do not even have the right to a defence. The UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner issued a reminder that these restrictions must meet the requirements of legality, necessity, and proportionality, and should be non-discriminatory.[2] Based on the principles of legality, only courts and not any other body can deliver verdicts on alleged offenders, and the right to a fair trial must be respected. The UN also warned that states must be humane and should impose penalties only after following the principle of proportionality without being discriminatory or arbitrary.

The problem in both rural and urban settings is that the capacity of the media to observe authoritarian tendencies—that undermine human rights and dignity—has been weakening. According to Zeyar Hlaing, member of the Secretariat of Myanmar Press Council,[3] what the media can cover is only the tip of the iceberg. The capacity of both national and local news media has been shrinking and it is too costly for them to cover all the possible implications of forceful measures imposed around the country. Moreover, gaining access to the information from respective ministries is very difficult for journalists during the health crisis. According to Kyaw Min Swe, the Director of Myanmar Journalism Institute: “Working with journalists in transparent ways was not widely practiced in the past and [a] lack of accountability and transparency is still continuing among bureaucratic agencies”. All these problems are more intensified in the conflict-affected areas.

Around one quarter of the country’s population live in conflict-affected areas which host one or more ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) resisting the central government’s authority. Although a ceasefire agreement was signed between the government and ten EAOs, recent clashes in some signatory EAO-controlled areas have made a COVID-19 response unfeasible in some parts of the country. Military clashes with the Arakan Army (AA), a newer EAO, have been mounting in northern Rakhine State and Southern Chin State in the west of Myanmar since January 2019. The often heavy fighting in these areas continues to put civilian lives in jeopardy and local populations are already exposed to risk of injury, displacement, and death at a time when COVID-19 has become a health emergency for the rest of the world.

Poor transportation and communication networks in conflict-affected areas certainly help the spread of the virus, but little has been reported about the impact of conflict and COVID-19 on people living in these areas. Covering COVID-19 is a risky business for local journalists in conflict zones—in April, a journalist was detained and two others received court summons for reporting on conflict in these areas. Barriers to information on healthcare also include an internet shutdown in nine conflict-affected townships in Rakhine and Chin states since June 2019. Though networks of civil society groups have called for the resumption of internet access in these areas, the government claimed that it needs to support all requests made by the army to facilitate its counter-insurgency operations and that the internet shutdown remains a necessary action. With the next general election drawing near, this internet censorship can also target critical voices across digital platforms, something evident in April, when the government shut down over 2,000 websites including 221 news webpages in the name of national security. Thus the government policy of “no one left behind” in the fight against COVID-19 is not applied in conflict areas where restrictions on media access and reporting are imposed.[4]

Links with the Past and Scope for a Free Media

These authoritarian measures recall memories of crisis management under the military dictatorship during the Cyclone Nargis humanitarian response in 2008. Taking extreme caution to hide the situation on the ground, reports and media coverage of the impact of the cyclone were consistently censored. Now history is repeating itself, and the ruling government and the army have been re-using this old technique in recent lawsuits against journalists. When Zaw Min, a reporter from Yangon Khit Thit media reported that supplies of water and soap were not adequate in the central-Myanmar quarantine centre of Pyawbwe, the local government sued him for defaming the state. It is common to find that quarantine centres outside of Yangon are ill-prepared and few meet standards recommended by the WHO. In this case, most of the journalists accused the government of having zero tolerance against criticism. Zaw Ye Htet, an editor from a local news organization in Kayin State, was arrested after his digital outlet incorrectly reported that there had been two cases of COVID-19 related deaths in Hpa-An. His subsequent apology did not save him from a two-year imprisonment under Article 505(b) of the Penal Code, with the court deciding that he intended to create “public panic” in a trial that was deemed unfair by the Committee to Protect Journalists. This kind of experience has occurred frequently in the last four years. Athan, an NGO campaigning for freedom of expression, reported that 1,051 people—including many activists, journalists, and members of the public—have been sued for criticizing the government, military, MPs, and other individuals since 2016.

Upon taking power in 2015, the NLD government inherited an unfinished media liberalization scheme from the previous government guided by UNESCO and funded by international donors. The next steps of this reform process outlined major changes such as: 1) restructuring and transforming state-owned media into public service media; 2) reforming the broadcast sector by creating a level playing field for all media owners; 3) providing space for community media; 4) strengthening media-regulating institutions such as the Myanmar Press Council; and 5) promoting ethnic/provincial media to encourage pluralism and diversity in Myanmar’s media landscape. UNESCO concluded that there has been little progress in reforming Myanmar’s media landscape in the last four years, as well as regression in many areas. The previous government took many steps to avoid loosening the state’s stranglehold on the media, which helps the military establishment and their cronies protect their long-term political and economic interests. The NLD government promised to remove the flaws within this system left behind by the previous government, however UNESCO’s recent assessment on the NLD’s progress highlights that the government ignored 65 percent of its recommendations and in particular no progress was made in legal reform. The state-owned media remains the mouthpiece of the ruling party and offers space for all things positive about the government ministries. When the top-level leaders moved closer to the views of the military around the issues of ethnic conflict—and the Rohingya crisis—the state-owned media tried to persuade the public to follow suit. In shaping public opinion around these events, much of the discourse of the democratically-elected government is not different from that of the military government of the past. As in the old days, they are not reluctant to criticize the human rights advocates as being a threat to stability and a danger to the success of democratic transition. They still portray environmental justice movements as a hindrance to economic growth. Previously the military accused the ethnic rights activists of “being disloyal” and “separatists”. Now the government media follows the same discourse.

Conclusion

Far from making radical changes to move the system away from authoritarianism, the incumbent leaders in Myanmar have decided to maintain the status quo. The ability to hear pluralistic voices has been severely undermined with a shrinking number of daily newspaper licenses, from 31 in 2014 to six in 2020. Yet the government retains its power to license, regulate, prosecute, and imprison its media competitors by not discussing three crucial media laws that badly need amendment. Consequently, Myanmar has seen a dramatic decline in the circulation, capacity, and quality of media content, and journalism is often regarded as neither financially viable nor physically safe. When defamation cases are brought by the government or military to the court, the flawed justice system rarely, if ever, favours journalists. Despite this, there are still many journalists who stick to the belief that the duty of the press is to investigate what happens on the ground. This includes explaining and analyzing how government policies impact people’s lives especially in times of crisis as with COVID-19. However, they are not certain how long they can continue to fight in the face of government repression. When the state of the media is fragile, people can fall prey to authoritarian populist leadership without even noticing it. If ethical and professional media is absent or waning, there will be more room for authoritarian decisions in the COVID-19 period and beyond.


[1] Thar Lun Zaung Htet (member of the Secretariat of Myanmar Press Council), interview by the author, 20 May 2020.

[2] ‘Emergency Measures and COVID-19: Guidance’, OCHR, 27 April 2020, available at https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Events/EmergencyMeasures_COVID19.pdf. Last accessed: 10 May 2020.

[3] Zeyar Hlaing (member of the Secretariat of Myanmar Press Council), interview by the author, May 20, 2020.

[4] ‘Overcoming as One: COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan”, Government of Myanmar, 27 April 2020, available at https://www.moi.gov.mm/moi:eng/?q=news/28/04/2020/id-21511. Last accessed: April 29, 2020.