Five years ago, Myanmar – as Burma’s then military government had renamed the country – was on-message: the state was the dominant force in the economy and the monopoly provider of the facts to go with it.
Myanmar was ranked 174th out of 178 countries in Reporters Without Frontiers’ 2010 Press Freedom Index, ahead of Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea. Efforts to report accurately on what was happening were confined to an exiled press banned from publishing in the country.
Five years on and the internal monopoly on information has been breached. In 2012, the government announced that it would no longer censor information prior to publication and that, from 2013, privately owned news media would be permitted for the first time in more than half a century. There are now 200 weekly news journals licensed in Myanmar, supplemented by more than 200 magazines.
But some issues remain effectively off-limits and the parameters of libel liable to shift. While government policy can now be questioned, fair comment is tolerated so long as it is not deemed to incite religious hatred or subvert national security.
These remain important riders in a country with ongoing religious and ethnic tensions. The writer Htin Lin Oo has just been sentenced to two years (with hard labour) for insulting religion because he criticised a hard-line Buddhist rights group.
The boundaries of what breaches national security are no less tightly patrolled. For example, a journalist covering the fighting in Mon state was arrested and shot dead by the army last October while allegedly trying to run away. The only consolation is that his fate has been headline news. Not so long ago, it might have gone unreported.
But for most markets the opportunities to get your message across in Myanmar’s media have never been greater. TV and the main newspapers are in the Burmese language but some papers, including the Myanmar Times, also have English-language editions.
Quality and penetration vary outside urban areas, but the arrival of foreign talent and former exiled media ‘repats’ returning home has made up for much lost expertise.
In addition, comms technology has also crossed barriers. A year ago, only seven per cent of the population of 51 million had access to the internet. Now, usage has soared thanks to the opening up of the country’s telecoms market, and half of the country may have 3G coverage by next year.
Not only is mobile phone ownership becoming commonplace but purchasers are going for smartphones, ensuring the rapid spread of mobile internet access. Social media have taken off, with Facebook and its Burmese-language rival, MySquar, dominating. For younger audiences, social media are becoming the main source of information-sharing and companies looking to reach this demographic need to embrace this reality.
One of the country’s most assiduous posters on his Facebook page is senior general Min Aung Hlaing (192,000+ likes). In Myanmar, even the military top brass is adapting its strategy to advance across a transformed media battleground.