Bridging the Transition: Contemplating the Role of Public Service Media in Emerging Myanmar

// In early January, CGCS Director Monroe Price returned from an advisory trip to recently media-liberated Burma. During his time abroad, Professor Price worked with preexisting media outlets, stakeholders, NGOs and other interested parties to help craft a functional understanding of free press in the country. In the first article of this series, Professor Price reflects on one of the major changes set to take place in the coming years as Burmese print media shifts from state-controlled to public service.

What constitutes “public service media” and how are public service media emerging in Myanmar?  That question seems to be at the core of ongoing debates in Rangoon and Napyidawas as new efforts unfurl under the direction of the Ministry of Information.

The goal was commendable, but from a grander perspective still somewhat unclear. While there were many examples internationally of a transition from state broadcaster to public service broadcaster status, there were very few, if any, examples for newspapers. Perhaps a law is needed to bring such a transformation about, but if so, what should such a law say?

Law can purport to command a change, but would that be sufficient? During my trip to Burma, I spent a good deal of time with Kyi Zaw Naing, a law professor on the Newspaper Advisory Board, and with Thilda Tin of the Ministry of Information, who had been working on this potential transformation. Both were supportive of its efficacy.

The energetic private press seems to minimize the need for a “public service media.”  We visited the Yangon Times and discussed the shaping of a public service newspaper sector with its voluble, energetic and entrepreneurial publisher and Chairman, KoKo.  We discussed, among other things, the plans for two of the government run newspapers—Mynmaalim and The Mirror.  Efforts are underway to restructure these publications as “public service” papers as opposed to state run or private publications.

The underlying uncertainty stems from the question of what actually makes a newspaper a “public service” medium – placed in a separate legal category with either special benefits, obligations or a combination of the two. Certainly more than a mere name change must be involved: rather it is a change in the culture of the workplace of the affected newspaper.  The staff of a restructured state paper would be expected to be interactive, more responsive to the public, more engaged – in a word more journalistic.

Establishing the Goals of a “Public Service” News Organization

The goal would not be to satisfy government owners, but somehow to focus independently on the real information needs of the people of Myanmar.  A public service newspaper might have a duty to be more pluralistic— to represent more clearly the news and views of ethnic minorities and other marginal groups in Myanmar society.  A public service medium could pioneer in making news available in multiple languages or perhaps even empowering groups to create better modes of communication among themselves.

Another eventuality could be that in a world of private newspapers within a fierce competitive environment there would be room for a public service newspaper that expanded news coverage including that of the public sector. This vision remains a problematic one at best.

But, for any of these changes, no deus ex machina can achieve the desired result.  And certainly, neither will a mere change in title and category. There is consensus that a first step is establishing an “independent” governing board, often with high expectations of what independence itself would accomplish.  Already in place is a Newspaper Advisory Board to steer the two affected newspapers to a different level of journalistic accomplishment.  Intensive training has already begun.

As mentioned, we found skepticism in the Rangoon journalism community which felt that “public service newspapers” would pay more attention to significant aspects of public needs than existing papers run by the state. The same could be said for private papers, which are increasingly paying attention to marketing and profit.

Amidst Echos of Western Media’s Concerns, Hope for Future Progress, Investment

Additionally, an international factor needs to be considered. Examining this question in Rangoon sounded familiar bells concerning the US and the West. There, too, it has been an intensifying mystery as how to encourage a printed press, facing shrinking readership and rapidly declining advertising revenues, to attend adequately to public needs. In the US, the tradition has been for family-controlled newspapers—the Washington  Post,  the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal – to establish and maintain great journalism, and do so consistently and with an adequate profit. But that tradition is fraying – and with it resonates the apprehension that a newspaper industry cannot afford to maintain a commitment to high level, comprehensive reporting.

There has not yet been a separate category of “public service” newspaper or press journalism. Now though, with apprehension about the future of the profession, examples begin to become more numerous and obvious.  For several years now, Pro Publica has been funded as a nonprofit public service investigative journalism entity.  It raises money (largely through donations) to finance extensive and Pulitzer-prize caliber inquiries—on whole industries, international issues and government waste and abuse.

NGOs, like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International, become, themselves, more like media, by undertaking or supplementing the reporting function and, through websites and publications, actually engaging in the production and dissemination of stories.  There is more and more talk of special incentives, tax and otherwise, to keep significant newspaper functions alive.  Some worry that local news will wither—and without the eye of the press, corruption will increase.  Others worry that international news will too suffer in the highly competitive world of journalism.

This concern with newspapers weakening is not the mood of Myanmar, however.

There, as is the case for other places of transition, will be vast experimentation and great innovation.  The Minister of Information has announced that daily newspapers, privately initiated, will be tolerated with a start date sometime in April. So great is the interest in the Myanmar market that foreign investors have to be held on a leash.  Entrepreneurs (like the publisher of the Yangon Times) are building out newsrooms, and filling them by hiring and training journalists.

Moving Forward with New Regulations

In this context, what will ultimately be the special role of “public service” newspapers or media?   It must be more than maintaining the current jobs and status of government owned newspapers.  To be justified in their operation, such papers must do something the highly competing new entrants will not do. That will be hard to find.
Of course, all of these initiatives are dependent upon the infrastructure put in place by currently forming media regulations. In the next post of this series, I will be discussing the foundations of these media regulations, their roles and in particular the challenges lying ahead for media professionals in this exciting time for Myanmar.

Featured Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by rocor

//Monroe E. Price is the director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School. He is also the Joseph and Sadie Danciger Professor of Law and Director of the Howard M. Squadron Program in Law, Media and Society at the Cardozo School of Law. He directs the Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research in London and is the Chair of the Center for Media and Communication Studies of the Central European University in Budapest.  Professor Price founded the Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy at Oxford University and remains a Research Fellow there.  He chairs the Center for Media and Communications Studies at Central European University, a project instituted and encouraged by CGCS.

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