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Myanmar’s media is supposedly free but there remain challenges as conservative forces have yet given up try to censor or intimidate journalists. The sensitive zone includes the life of former military dictator Senior General Than Shwe and the plight of the Rohingya people, said Chit Win Maung, a member of the Myanmar Press Council and chief editor and publisher of Tetlann Sports Journal.

"I can't openly criticise or dare to say something on this issue [of sectarian violence]," said Chit Win Maung, during a discussion co-organised by Media Inside Out Group (MIO) and Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand's Media Exchange Program in Bangkok.

When asked if there existed any media organisation in Myanmar that could be openly sympathetic to the plight of the Rohingya people, Chit Win Maung was not able to name one. His view regarding  the status of the Rohingya people was countered by Kyaw Yin Myint , upper Myanmar bureau chief for Modern, Kumudram Dana and Warazein newspapers, who said  the Rohingya people have been  in Myanmar a long time and should not be regarded as illegal migrants. Kyaw Yin Myint, added that the sectarian violence had led some to now feel nostalgic for ‘law and order’ under military dictatorship than under the current supposedly more democratic administration.

Chit Win Maung later admitted that: "There are problems in discussing the Rohingya people. Even the name itself is problematic." He added by drawing attention to the fact that even the local media refers to the Rohingya people as illegal migrants from Bangladesh. "For the media now, this issue is very difficult to discuss. We do not want to make the conflict grow.” He also challenged Kyaw Yin Myint whether he dares to discuss the Rohingya issue in Myanmar as he expressed himself here in Bangkok.

 This led the moderator, Ubonrat Siriyuvasak, former lecturer of communication arts at Chulalongkorn University, to conclude that the matter is a sensitive issue for the media in Myanmar.

 A similar scenario applies to the life of Than Shwe, said Chit Win Maung, adding however that it was not exactly a taboo topic, although "you need to be careful".

In 2012, censorship law was abolished and by April 2013, many private daily newspapers are being allowed to publish and this had greatly widened the political debate, said Chit Win Maung. He acknowledged, however, that due to economic and transportation constraints, the circulation of the majority of these newspapers was still limited to one or two big cities. Besides two Mon-language newspapers, there are no other ethnic-minority-language newspapers, said Chit Win Maung, explaining that many ethnic minorities were illiterate.

"Now we're very open … most journalists can criticise President Thein Sein, no problem now," said Chit Win Aung, who admitted, however, that Thailand's media was much more open compared to Myanmar's. He added  that Myanmar is no longer liken North Korea, Iran, Cuba or China when it comes to freedom of the press and writers and  artists can also create political work freely.

Jimmy, a Burmese correspondent for Asahi TV since 1998, said no matter where journalists went they were still monitored by the authorities. His television film was recently confiscated by authorities and sending video files to Asahi TV's bureau in Bangkok is particularly time consuming due to what he believed to be the control of the Internet line by authorities.

"I have to try the whole night to send it to Bangkok," he said, adding that though the level of press freedom is much higher than before, journalists need 100 per cent freedom.

San Thar Aung, co-coordinator for Media Exchange Program said Myanmar’s journalists have for the past few years benefit from exposure trips to countries like Thailand and able to learn from different working experiences.

Sharing an experience from a different continent, G. W. Seebaggala, national coordinator for the Human Rights Network for Journalists (HRNJ) from Uganda, said the media in his country cannot criticize the first family which has been in power for 27 years while LGBT are roundly condemned by society and most in the media. Seebaggala added that national security law is also vaguely defined and abused and some journalists have been held incommunicado under the law. Another participant, a woman from Uganda, said the First Lady is also both an MP and a minister.

Achara Ashayagachat, senior reporter at The Bangkok Post newspaper said national security has always been used as an excuse to curb freedom of the press and Thailand is no exception. She said there’s one issue that cannot be touched by the Thai media but refused to mention it. This prompt Pravit Rojanaphruk, senior reporter at The Nation newspaper who was amongst the audience to shout and say that Thai media has no freedom to criticize the monarchy institution under the Lese Majeste law.

“[Criminal Code] 112 is the code word – most [Thai] journalists refrain from criticizing the monarchy,” said Ubonrat, the moderator.

Back to Myanmar, Chit Win Maung said reporters in his country need to be properly trained. This prompt Supak Ganjanakhundee, regional news editor at The Nation and another speaker,  to comment that a number of journalists from Myanmar whom he works with who are from the Eleven Media are not professional enough, even from the standard of The Nation’s journalists whom he thinks are not high.

“What I have found is that their quality of reporting is below standard, even from The Nation’s standard which is not so high,” he said, adding that this may partly be due to the fact that many journalists in Myanmar are former activists. He said he also have problem whenever he writes and criticize the situation in Myanmar as his Burmese contacts would insist that he knows nothing about Myanmar.

Supalak thinks that journalists in Myanmar should recognize that fair treatment means you should give fair space for people to speak about their differing view about any situation including the Rohingya issue. “Being a journalist, you have to be fair enough.”

As for the Thai media, Supalak said greater investment in having Thai correspondents in neighbouring countries is needed.

Towards the end of the discussion, Achara said she thinks the problem of the Thai media is with self-censorship and low level of professionalism. She reminded the gathering that mainstream mass media is first and foremost a business. “Business interests dictate the future of the media.”

Thai media, said Achara, is also rather parochial and only report about Cambodia or Laos when it affects Thailand’s interests. Then there’re the inculcation through the promotion of nationalism which led many Thais to hold bias to any ethnic minority. The Thai media, said Achara, should at least recognize that they’re somehow bias on such issue.

Supalak ditched in and added that the term ‘southern goon’ or ‘joen tai’ (โจรใต้) in Thai language used by the Thai-language media to refer to separatists in the deep south is a good example of such bias.

For Thailand, said Supalak, there are still three sensitive issues that cannot be fully discussed by the media – monarchy, religion and the military.

Particularly on the Thai monarchy issue, said Supalak, the media pretend not to see anything negative and leave it to somebody else to talk about it. This, he concludes, has led the matter to become a bigger problem which Thai society will eventually have to face.

Press Freedom in Myanmar, Thailand and beyond