Burma | Shifting Currents

After decades of being muzzled by the Junta, a free media in Burma struggles to its feet

Burmese journalists wait outside a Yangon court for a ruling on the defamation case against The Voice Weekly. The paper’s editor and publisher are on trial for defamation after they published stories on corruption in the government. SOE THAN WIN / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 December, 2012

IN HIS EIGHT YEARS as a television professional, Nay Linn Lwin’s work experience has been limited to producing soaps, humour shows and advertisements. Understandably, then, at a recent training programme in downtown Yangon that he attended along with 15 other local journalists, Lwin was stumped when asked to come up with ideas for news stories. “This is a new challenge for me, to think [of] news on television, but I promise to work hard,” 32-year-old Lwin said.

Like most private television professionals in Burma, Lwin has never worked on news because, under the chokehold of Burma’s military regime, private channels were only allowed to air entertainment programmes. News and current affairs were the exclusive domain of the television station MRTV-4, owned and managed by the government. Private channels were restricted to airing local serials, along with shows from the West and other Asian countries, with Burmese subtitles.

In Burma, print, television and radio fall under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, which has for decades implemented a brutal censorship policy. Any print, radio and TV material related to news or current affairs had to be submitted to the ministry for clearance. Anything deemed unacceptable or offensive was cut without explanation. Journalists in the country couldn’t dare criticise the government, for fear of imprisonment under antiquated laws.

Apart from crushing free speech, the suffocating censorship process also effectively ruled out the publishing of private daily newspapers—the time needed to pass material through the censorship mechanism meant that papers could only be brought out fortnightly or weekly.

Since last year, however, when Burma’s government under President Thein Sein gradually began to implement democratic reforms in the country, restrictions to freedom of speech have also begun to be eased. A new law currently being drafted is expected to formalise the functioning of a freer media. On the ground, favourable policies are already being put in place as part of a three-stage transition. In the first stage, the rule that all content had to pass through a censor before being aired or published has been relaxed; now, only potentially controversial content needs clearance. The drafting and implementing of the new media law will be the second step, while in the third stage, the government will implement measures to encourage the growth of private media.

But while the reforms promise sweeping change, harsh laws remain in place, which enable the government to prosecute journalists for a wide variety of offences. The editor and publisher of a paper named The Voice Weekly are currently on trial for defamation after they published stories about corruption in the government. The case is widely seen as damaging the government’s reforms-oriented image, and has met with protests from media organisations. The trial’s outcome will be read as a sign of the government’s seriousness about reform, as well as of the judiciary’s independence. For the moment, the mood among the country’s media is mixed.

The workshop I conducted in Yangon—organised by Mizzima News and Five Plus TV— aimed to test the waters of TV news broadcasting in this new, unfolding scenario. Rather than plunge straight into political news, the organisers decided to proceed more carefully, by starting with producing 30-minute business programmes. “We will like to start with business programs because that won’t be controversial. At every step, we need to see how far we can go,” said Five Plus director Win Khine.

Five Plus’s partner in the workshop, Mizzima, is a media organisation run by Soe Myint, a journalist in his 40s, who spent two decades in India as an exile during the junta rule over Burma. While in exile, Myint continued to work as a journalist focusing on his home country, starting an English-Burmese website, then producing a magazine with both English and Burmese editions, titled Mizzima (middle path) from India. Though primarily intended for the exile community, pro-democracy activists also managed to smuggle copies into Burma and circulate them in secret networks.

Later, Myint set up a TV unit that produced uncensored content for channels like the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a channel based in Oslo; some of these programmes were uploaded on the Mizzima website and found an audience within Burma. While in exile, Myint also organised workshops in Delhi and Kolkata for journalists from Burma, with the intent that they might strive to sustain a free media from outside the country’s borders.

Last year, encouraged by the government’s reforms, Myint returned to Burma to work, and to equip journalists with the skills to form a thoughtful, critical media in the country when reforms set in. The transition, however, will not be easy. “Some of those we trained outside the country are not coming back to Burma because they want resettlement in the West for a safe future. We came back because we believe our country will change for the better, but we know it will take time,” Myint said.

Along with Myint, other journalists from Burma have also worked to keep alive the idea of a free media while in exile during the long years of military rule. Reporters working with e-newsgroups representing ethnic communities like the Kachin, Chin, Rakhine and Rohingya, have participated in other workshops I conducted in Delhi and Calcutta. With help from Myint, these groups later merged to form, along with Mizzima, Burma News International (they are opposed to the name Myanmar). The long-term vision for the group is that it can evolve into a national news agency along the lines of the Press Trust of India.

Much work needs to be done, however, before a professional news industry is formed in the country. At the Yangon workshop, the young trainees’ inexperience in journalism appeared to translate into a lack of enthusiasm for reporting—some participants were keen on learning to operate a camera, others to edit news packages, but few were keen to go out and do stories as reporters. It was decided to train the group together more broadly, in the basics of television reporting and presentation, with the aim that, whatever specialisation they chose later, they would have a holistic view of the news business. Alongside, Myint also organised a crash course in economics to help the students tackle business stories, since the students had never had any exposure to the subject.

Over the course of the workshop, students took their first fledgling steps in news reportage. “We began as novices, but after the course, I feel we can do business stories,” said Su Thaw, who trained as a lawyer before deciding to become a journalist. Thaw ended up doing a story on Burma’s growing car imports as a result of recent tax cuts. Other subjects covered by the trainees included housing problems and high rents in Yangon, and the prohibitive cost of SIM cards in the country, one of the government’s longstanding measures to stifle the possible spread of dissent.

Lwin, unsure at first how to find ‘news’, settled on a story on a Malaysian food giant entering Burma with its most popular product, a pork dish called Bak Kut Teh. He incorporated visuals he had from an earlier ad shoot into his story, which commented on the irony of a Muslim nation entering the Burmese market with a pork dish.

But while there are promising signs of the growth of a new, freer media in the country, a culture of silence still pervades the country’s public, a result of years of living in fear of repression. “We can now think pictures and research the story. But we have to figure out whom to interview,” said Ye Min, another journalist, who assisted me in conducting the workshop, adding that academics and other subject experts have, over the decades, tended to migrate to escape military rule. Min has filmed for Mizzima outside Burma before, and found people in India and Thailand, including Burmese exiles, willing to speak. “But it is quite different here,” Min said. “People, including experts, are not willing to speak unless they are sure they will not get into trouble.”