Welcome to the first issue of Frontier, an independent, weekly current affairs and business magazine focusing on transitional Myanmar.
We launch in turbulent times, in a media sector that is still finding its feet. In a sense the mere fact that we are able to publish this magazine – an unknown quantity – six months before a watershed general election is an indication that media freedom in Myanmar has come a long way since the dark days of the junta and its pervasive censorship.
The abolition of pre-publication censorship in the print media in August 2012 was a huge leap forward. The same can be said of the decision allowing the private sector to begin publishing daily newspapers in April 2013.
The reformist Thein Sein government has had difficulty adjusting to the emergence of a free press, though. There have been some disturbing developments and one that has generated considerable publicity is the Unity Journal case.
In 2014, the chief executive officer and four journalists at Unity Journal were charged with breaching the Official Secrets Act and other offences after it published a report alleging that chemical weapons were being produced at a military facility in Magwe Region. The Unity 5 were sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour, subsequently reduced on appeal to seven years. At a peaceful protest in July 2014 over the Unity 5 case, 50 journalists were arrested.
In early October 2014 the media community was shocked by the death in Mon State of journalist Ko Par Gyi while in Tatmadaw custody. He died of gunshot wounds. International criticism prompted President U Thein Sein to order an investigation into the circumstances of Ko Par Gyi’s death. The fairness of the series of hearings that ensued is questionable.
In another indication that the Tatmadaw is ill at ease with the media, its public relations department on May 3 2015 banned reporting about the activities of the Kokang rebel group, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, at a conference of ethnic minority groups hosted by the United Wa State Army at its headquarters in Shan State. The public relations department warned in a letter to the interim Myanmar Press Council that those who reported on the Kokang group’s statements would face legal action.
When the Myanmar Times published a cartoon mocking the men in green earlier this year, the response from a disgruntled Tatmadaw led to the suspension of a cartoonist and several editors. But it takes two to tango. Journalists too have a responsibility to ensure that their reports are fair and impartial. Facts need to be checked, which in some newspapers is rarely the case. Commercial pressures – there are too many daily newspapers fishing for readers in the same pond – have lead to sensationalism, with some trying to further the agendas of their owners. Sometimes newspapers have irresponsibly helped to stoke the flames of prejudice and intolerance.
Of course, transitions are never linear. They are composed of many small changes in different layers of society. A transition is often a process of two steps forward, one step back and setbacks are to be expected. As journalists become more experienced and professional and as readers become more discriminating, the quality of reporting in Myanmar will rise.
Frontier hopes to play a modest part in pushing the boundaries further. Myanmar is changing and we want to write about the evolution this nation is experiencing; to explain why things are happening and what is likely to happen next. Freely. Fairly. Critically. Unbiased and independently from activist or political ties.
Ultimately there’s only agenda we serve: the quest to understand Myanmar and help you, our audience of readers, to understand the process of change and its consequences. This first issue of Frontier is our first step on the road to achieving that goal.