//Barbara Swann, Senior International Legal Consultant for the U.S. Department of Justice Counsel and experienced media law and policy consultant reflects on the Media Law Working Group trip to Myanmar (formerly Burma), headed by Monroe Price.
What were the Media Law Delegation’s goals for this trip to Myanmar?
The Media Law Working Group headed by Monroe Price; that is, to assess the media situation on the ground and to contribute to the extent appropriate and practicable to the national dialogue on media policies and development of a legislative framework reflective of international standards of freedom of expression including freedom of the press. We were greatly encouraged by the fact that we had been invited to Burma for that purpose by the Union Minister of Information.
What was the highlight of the trip to Myanmar?
For me, the highlight of the trip was meeting openly with independent and formerly exiled journalists inside a country that for decades was one of the world’s most isolated and repressive media environments and to hear those journalists speak with enthusiasm and genuine optimism about transforming the Myanmar media sector into one of the freest in Southeast Asia.
Did anything either on the trip to Myanmar or the subsequent trip by representatives from Myanmar to the United States surprise you?
The changes we saw in the Burma media environment were not only surprising, they were unimaginable just a little more than a year ago. When we were there in December, for example, The Irrawaddy published and distributed its magazine legally in Myanmar for the first time since it was founded by Myanmar journalists in Thailand two decades ago. Exiled journalists once branded enemies of the state even participated with representatives of the Union Government and state-owned media at a roundtable event organized for us in Yangon by members of the journalist-dominated Press Council, which was created last year by President U Thein Sein to draft a new press law reflective of international standards.
The subsequent visit to the United States of two journalist members of the Press Council and two representatives of the Union Government in February marked the first time in modern times that such a mixed delegation from Burma traveled to this country. There was an extremely high level of interest on the part of both the Burmese participants and the U.S. participants at the roundtable organized by Monroe Price at the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School. For the Burmese participants, the roundtable at Penn was one of the highlights of their two-week stay in the United States.
What role do you think foreign stakeholders or advisors can and should have in defining the changing media landscape in Myanmar?
I think foreign stakeholders can serve in certain respects as change agents by providing international advisors who have the requisite expertise, contextual knowledge and cultural sensitivity to help local media to develop indigenous capacity, the highest journalistic standards, and sustainable media institutions. Ultimately, though, the media landscape in Burma will be defined by the ability of Myanmar media and civil society to influence the political will of the ruling regime to support a truly independent media sector.
What challenges lie ahead for drafting media policy in Myanmar?
Significant challenges lie ahead for drafting media policy in Burma. We are seeing the most immediate challenge being played out today in Naypyidaw, where debate in Parliament on a new draft press registration bill backed by the Ministry of Information was postponed after media organizations protested that the proposed law posed their “most serious threat ever.” Journalist members of the Press Council complain that they were never consulted by the Ministry and that they are now finalizing the initial draft of a new press law that will comply with international standards of freedom of expression. It is encouraging that protests in the media capital of Yangon have been heard in the political capital Naypyidaw, but there is still considerable distance between those two points. It remains to be seen whether the Ministry will withdraw its draft press registration bill in favor of the Press Council’s more progressive draft press law. Naturally, we all are hoping to see the emergence of truly independent media in a democratic Myanmar.
Monroe Price and Ko Ko Hlaing, Advisor to the President