Burmese Press Revels in New-found Freedom

A broad range of journals are currently on sale in Rangoon. (Photo: The Irrawaddy)

RANGOON—These are heady days in Burmese newsrooms, many of them staffed by young women like those at Kumudra newspaper nicknamed after ”Charlie’s Angels” for their tenacity in holding the military-dominated government to account.

Reporters and editors are suddenly enjoying remarkable press freedom as the country’s new, nominally civilian government launches a rapid succession of reforms, but they also fear they may be inadequately prepared as they enter uncharted, potentially hazardous territory.

The country’s mushrooming media is poised at the crossroads. Media censorship is due to end this month. But journalists fret that the censorship may be replaced by new kinds of repression, including crackdowns—after the fact—over stories that previously would simply never have been published.

“With censorship, we knew our limits. In a way it protected us. Now we will be exposed,” said Nyein Nyein Naing of the 7Day Journal. “We will need to be more careful, accurate and responsible.”

Surveying her newsroom, the 29-year-old co-chief editor said she was concerned that the end of censorship could prove a minefield, with officials and others ready to slap lawsuits on independent media prone to error. Some have already been lodged.

Journalists also are concerned about the government’s plans to introduce a wide-ranging media law—details of which have been kept secret so far—as well as the expected influence of powerful Burmese tycoons with ties to the country’s former military leaders, known locally as the “cronies,” who are buying up newspapers and other media.

Burma’s abysmal education system has produced many eager but untrained journalists. Editors complain that some can’t even write a decent sentence in Burmese.

“They are trying very hard and are often good reporters but their writing is a disaster,” says Ye Naing Moe, a reporter and one of the country’s few qualified trainers. “It’s like buying good meat at the market but not knowing how to cook it.”

From a handful of weekly newspapers a decade ago, there are now more than 150. Having upgraded from hole-in-the wall, rat-infested operations, some have gleaming newsrooms with the latest-model computers, but lag far behind in training the influx of new reporters and editors. And many will be hiring even more once the government starts allowing daily newspapers later this year.

But optimism runs high.

Although pay is still low—cub reporters earn around US $80 a month—the profession is increasingly respected and attracts some of the best and brightest when earlier aspiring journalists—viewed as government mouthpieces—risked being kicked out of their family homes and told to get a real job.

William Chen, publisher of the Kumudra and Modern newspapers, says many of the recruits are women. His own reporting staff—locally known as “William’s Angels”—is 90 percent female, with most in their 20s. More than half the reporters at 7Day, at 145,000 the country’s largest-circulation paper, are women.

“They’re more loyal, hardworking and responsible than most males,” Chen says, also noting that men have more job options.

Despite the shortcomings, Jeff Hodson, an American who has trained Southeast Asian journalists for more than a decade, says those in Burma are among the region’s most passionate and hardest-working despite the country’s half-century of isolation, iron-fisted military rule and economic stagnation.

“Their biggest achievement has been their refusal to give up hope in the face of overwhelming press restrictions. They’ve steadily carved out a space for freedom of expression, step by step,” he said.

This month, Ye Naing Moe and four colleagues slipped into Kachin territory to tell the rebel side of the story in a brutal civil war against the Burmese government. Not long ago, they would almost certainly have served a harsh prison sentence for violating an act forbidding “contact with illegal organizations.” They received only a mild rebuke.

“These days we don’t care about censorship at all. We just go ahead and publish stories,” said Nyein Nyein Naing, proudly displaying Ye Naing Moe’s front page story along with another once forbidden item—the photograph of an anti-government demonstration.

Once highly taboo images of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest 19 months ago and currently on a tour of Europe where she belatedly accepted her Nobel Peace Prize, are now routinely displayed in all but state-controlled media.

Recent coverage of other previously taboo topics includes labor unrest at a Taiwanese garments factory and sectarian violence between Buddhists and minority Rohingya Muslims.

The censorship board used to strike out words, and even entire stories, with red ink and shut down newspapers temporarily for violations. But censors have relaxed their grip in recent months.

“When I started working in the media, we could not even mention the word ‘democracy.’ The progress we have made is huge,” Ye Naing Moe said, noting that the government now blocks fewer websites than neighboring Thailand, a democracy.

Less than two years ago, journalists were tortured, imprisoned and subjected to constant surveillance. The last known imprisoned journalist was released in January.

However, journalists are concerned that a new government press council will become a watchdog on “those who cross the line” rather than an instrument to protect journalists, resolve conflicts and improve media standards. They’re also deeply suspicious that entrenched hard-liners will roll back recent gains through the new media law.

UNESCO official Sardar Umar Alam says Burma’s government has been surprisingly receptive to input from the U.N. cultural agency on the upcoming media law, and has sent teams to both Asian and Western nations to study similar legislation.

But that has done little to allay concerns of journalism community of Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

“Ideally no media law is the best media law. One way or another it will be a measure for control,” said Nyan Lynn, a reporter and publisher.

The legislation is to be presented next month to Parliament, where amendments will be difficult because lawmakers allied with the military command a great majority.

Already controlling more than half the weeklies, businessmen connected to generals and other powerbrokers are expected to increase their dominance when daily papers are permitted and the higher operating costs push the poorer independents into bankruptcy.

“We will soon have to fight the cronies. We have to know how to compete. We have to be fit and ready to protect ourselves,” says Nyan Lynn. The tycoon-owned papers, editors say, are drawing in talent by offering double or more the salaries of the independents.

But typical of a new bravado among journalists, Nyan Lynn will next month open a newspaper to focus on “issues the government needs to address urgently.”

“We revealed the realities of Burma to the outside world,” he said, describing how local journalists sent images of a 2007 Buddhist monk-led uprising to the outside world and how they have exposed irregularities ahead of the country’s 2010 election.

“It’s difficult to exactly measure the changes we brought about, but we did our job,” Nyan Lynn said. “We made a difference.”

5 Responses to Burmese Press Revels in New-found Freedom

  1. After practical endorsement of the Nargis constitution and incessant publicity work for the military and Thein Sein in particular, to say getting permission to print Aung San Suu Kyi picture as any measure of freedom at all is totally irrelevant.

    For all the freedom, the “media”, as they like to be known, is simply folowing the popular subjects and opinion for the circulation.

    The very important issues of the country are reported usually from foreign media services or quotes from foreign Rights groups.

    There has been no coverage on the crony theft and is not ever likely to be as they will now own the “Media” which is also the reason there is relaxation of the censorship. If Murdoch put Cameron on the throne , Murdoch has little to fear him any more, and vice vasa.

    People of Burma are worse off living only on europhia at the moment with urgent plan to get a one dollar jobs for lifelong indenture-ment for the masses as the best plan by the uneducated government advised by self-serving group of local and foreign advisors, fully endorsed by equally equipped “Opposition”.

    The daily happening of land grabbing, forced labour, religious persecutions are worse not better and are not covered or pointed out by the “Free Media”.

    The circulation may go up. The benefit to the real people is negative as the media has been simply going along with the hegemony of the military.

  2. Coca Cola ‘donated’ $3million, which is nothing in a nation with 56 million people – and tourists. Think of the profits of sugar water if they buy two bottles of Coke each! What a pity, instead they could have done so much good, in education or health. Perhaps they don’t know how.

    Burma is in danger as we knew it would be. Many people are doing their best to stall the massive wall of greed, and the corruption (massive rewards to the oppressors) until people are safe (if not protected from exploitation). The next years will be complex.

    But we always knew that those who kill, rape, and shoot monks had limited time. China too has bigger and more cracks, as there is nowhere to move for ugly old paradigms..

    Humans are indeed often in a sad state, but the noble human spirit, carried in the words and actions and the integrity of those who choose it, is indomitable.

    Along with global rearranging is grassroots action: choosing simplicity, authenticity and ethics. Those who are there wear it. Those who are not… don’t.

    Healthy media is a worthy goal. The journey has begun.

  3. One may go and one may come but U Kyaw San remains unchanged, and we should ask if he stays on forever. He shouldn’t and he mustn’t, cause he is the great liar and bias man yelling and critisizing the international figures and media the whole past decades. That won’t be a good impression and image for the govt.

  4. Beware of the majority of the media being run by the cronies; hard liners can provoke unrest in a new democracy by using them as proxies.

  5. do you have any news of Phyo Wai Aung, who was arrested on 22nd April 2010. tortured in prisons and sentenced to death, although he says he is not guilty for bombings on 15th april 2010. He is sick with cancer. his case was to be heard in the Supreme ‘Court on June 26th.
    We are very anxious and care for him. If you have new, hopefully good information, we would be thankful if you could communicate them to us.
    thank you and best regards.

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