Who will fill the gap of media literacy in Myanmar?

Recently I learnt that millions of SIM cards would be sold by Myanmar telecommunications services companies, Telenor and Oredoo. For most countries, this is not newsworthy. But for Myanmar, it’s massive. Up until May 2011 a non-web enabled SIM card cost a Burmese citizen US$3000. In 2013, just 6.7% of Myanmar citizens had home internet access and 5.1 % had mobile access, this latest development means that very rapidly, most people here will have mobile internet access.

As this digital media rapidly becomes integrated into our daily lives, we need to think through the media literacy skills of the Myanmar people.

Recently I visited a friend and his wife showed me a photograph of a funeral. On the coffin was the name Senior General Than Shwe (the former Burmese dictator). ‘Than Shwe’, she said, in shock, ‘has died!’ The photo was of course a fake. However, this is one of many situations I have encountered in recent months as global and national stories and images start to circulate in Myanmar in unprecedented ways.

Countries that have long had internet penetration have slowly adjusted to internet scams, fakes and propaganda. Through schools, families and friends, citizens in these countries have learnt to be critical and sceptical of content. They’ve found ways to verify information and have developed a network of trusted local language sources. But these kinds of developments have not yet happened in Myanmar.

An American-based NGO, Media Literacy Project (MLP) has described media literacy as: ” the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, and create media.” Media literacy is something that is learnt. But it’s not a skills that has been taught or supported in Myanmar. Without these skills, Burmese citizen’s are made vulnerable to abuse.

If we look at the religious conflicts that recently occurred between Muslims and Buddhists in Myanmar, we can clearly see that the main proponents of this conflict actively exploited people’s lack of media literacy. Facebook in particular became a platform for inciting violence and hatred.

In the past, Myanmar educational institutions have deliberately neglected the media literacy skills of Myanmar public. It was in their vested interest to do so. However, the government have recently welcomed Media Development NGOs who are now supporting the development of local media.

Addressing the media literacy of Myanmar citizen’s is no simple task. This will be a long-term project that needs proper policy, funding and support. Opening up the free flow of information comes with new opportunities but also, less discussed important responsibilities. All this begs the question: ”Who will fill the gap of media literacy of Myanmar and how quickly can they do it?