Myanmar’s FM stations provide little independent news to their audiences and this seems unlikely to change until the government finally begins implementing the 2015 Broadcasting Law.
By HEIN THAR | FRONTIER
In February 2018, residents of a rural township northwest of Yangon made media history. From a small studio and surrounding villages, they shared farming tips, local histories and road closures across the airwaves; Myanmar’s first community radio station had arrived.
The station, Khayae FM, is a government-approved pilot project supported by German media training organisation DW Akademie. It broadcasts only to residents in Htantabin Township, a rural area of Yangon Region, making it unique in the country’s broadcasting landscape.
“The advantage of community radio is that we can broadcast news just about our township – even things that the township authorities don’t know about yet,” said station manager Ma Mee Mee.
But community radio is not about to shake up the tightly regulated broadcasting sector any time soon; Khayae FM remains the country’s only community channel.
This is because the government is yet to enact by-laws to bring the 2015 Broadcasting Law into force, after which new stations can be licensed and at least 20 percent of the broadcasting frequency spectrum will be available for community services.
Ma Mee Mee said covering running costs is also a challenge. Khayae FM relies mostly on donations because its ability to attract advertising is limited.
“This could hold back the popularity of community radio in Myanmar,” she said. “But townships with their own station will be much better served than those without one.”
In anticipation of the legal framework being put in place, media development organisation International Media Support has also helped establish three community radio stations in Chin State and Ayeyarwady Region that for the time being distribute through Facebook and other online platforms.
But the Myanmar Broadcasters Association, an industry body formed in 2015, is urging the government to do more to support the creation of community radio.
“It is essential that Myanmar should have community radio stations throughout the country that do not have to broadcast news as stations are currently required to do,” said association vice president U Ye Naing Soe, who is also general manager at radio station City FM.
Community radio networks are common in neighbouring countries. In Thailand, more than 7,000 have been set up and they provide an “important alternative” to mainstream broadcasters.
In India, the value of community radio became clear during the coronavirus pandemic, when remote villages relied on the medium for updates during the country’s lockdown.
An independent broadcaster would likely be appreciated in Rakhine State, where the government has cut mobile internet to seven townships for the past year, and many areas do not have regular electricity.
“We have been relying on the radio news, especially during this COVID-19 crisis; we are grateful to have the radio,” said U Nyi Khine Min, a farmer from Rakhine State’s Ponnagyun Township, one of the areas affected by the internet blackout.
Nyi Khine Min gets his news from Teen Radio, a private station formerly known as Pyinsawady FM.
Like all private FM stations, most of the news on Teen Radio is simply a rebroadcast of the most recent bulletin from state-run Myanmar Radio and Television.
The state bulletins focus on the activities of government officials, but rarely cover controversial issues and typically present only the government’s perspective. The news is usually also delayed, long after it has circulated online or on private TV networks.
Teen Radio is one of about 10 FM stations in Myanmar, most of which focus on entertainment.
Most were set up in 2010, when the military regime handed out licences to favoured businesspeople, including U Tay Za, U Khin Shwe and U Kyaw Win. The military also runs a station, Thazin FM, as does the Yangon City Development Committee, with City FM, which began broadcasting in 2002.
The Ministry of Information charges them a fixed fee for the use of state infrastructure, including transmitters, broadcasting towers and satellite links for transferring audio files. Although the private stations have gradually expanded their reach since launching, most of them cover a limited geographic area.
As part of their agreement with the Ministry of Information, the stations must broadcast a news bulletin provided by state-run MRTV twice a day. As a presenter at a well-known FM station who requested anonymity told Frontier, “MRTV controls the news.”
Some FM stations also employ reporters, and some buy news from print media organisations. However, most of the broadcasting time is dedicated to entertainment, and few station owners seem interested in pushing independent reporting.
Instead, radio listeners seeking independent reporting tend to tune in to shortwave stations, such as BBC or VOA, which have long been an important source of news despite attempts by the former military regime to jam their signals.
“FM stations compete only on content,” said Ko Kyaw Swar Lwin, station manager of Mandalay FM and Pyinsawady FM, both of which are part of the Forever Group of Companies.
Time for change?
As FM stations cling to the adage that “radio will never die”, just how healthy is the FM radio sector in Myanmar?
Although neither the Ministry of Information nor the association conducts surveys of listenership, they say FM audiences are growing because of increased mobile phone use, which has enabled stations to reach more people than through terrestrial broadcasting.
Like most media organisations, the commercial FM stations have suffered a decline in advertising revenue as a result of COVID-19, the economic effects of which have prompted many businesses to reduce spending on advertising. Ye Naing Soe said ad revenue at City FM has declined 50pc since March.
However, FM stations appear to be faring better than print and online media organisations, many of which have reduced salaries, cut staff or even closed altogether.
In other ways, though, the picture does not look so good.
Media sector reforms introduced by the U Thein Sein government, including an end to onerous pre-publication censorship in 2012 and permitting privately-owned daily newspapers in 2013, brought far-reaching changes in the print media sector.
The number of daily newspapers expanded so rapidly the market was saturated. An inevitable contraction was accelerated by the boom in mobile phones that provided alternative sources of information after the telecommunications sector was liberalised in 2013.
In contrast, the FM radio sector has been virtually static since 2010, with no new commercial stations since then.
None of the private FM stations can be described as independent, because they all operate through joint ventures with the Ministry of Information.
Only the Tatmadaw’s Thazin FM has national reach. “If we want to broadcast to more cities, we will need to pay more in fees,” said Ye Naing Soe, adding that it was uncertain whether they would recoup these costs through increased advertising revenue.
The development of the sector seems likely to depend on implementation of the Broadcasting Law.
Aside from permitting five television channels in 2018, which operate in partnership with MRTV, the National League for Democracy government has been slow to implement the law that it inherited from the Union Solidarity and Development Party government. (The Ministry of Information declined numerous requests for comment.)
Ye Naing Soe said the Ministry of Information held three meetings with industry stakeholders in 2019 to discuss implementation, but that it was still “in progress”.
The first step is likely to be the formation of an independent National Broadcasting Council that will oversee the sector.
“Only when the by-laws are enacted can the council be formed and more broadcast services be licensed,” said Ye Naing Soe. “The status of the law [implementation] is a major obstacle for the development of the sector – particularly for expanding community radio.”