Dateline Irrawaddy: Govt ‘Has Done Nothing’ for Independent Ethnic Media

By The Irrawaddy 24 June 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The role of ethnic media is important in Myanmar, which is a multiethnic country. This week, founder and chief editor of Arakanese media Narinjara News Agency U Khaing Myat Kyaw and ethnic Kachin reporter Ma Nan Lwin Pwint of The Irrawaddy join me to discuss ethnic media. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

According to the Information Ministry, there are over 885 publications published in ethnic languages either by government agencies or by independent media. Your Narinjara News Agency operated in exile in Bangladesh during the military regime, and returned to Myanmar after private media was allowed under the U Thein Sein government, and it continues operation under the civilian government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. How has your news agency struggled and what challenges has it faced, and is facing, through the past and at present?

Khaing Myat Kyaw: Our news agency was established in Bangladesh’s Dhaka in 2001. At that time, we had enormous difficulties in gathering news because there was no phone or internet in Burma. [Reporters] had to come and report in person. We operated our news agency based on such news reports. So, we had real difficulties in gathering news while we were in exile. We were allowed to come back to Myanmar in 2014 under President U Thein Sein’s government. Then, it was a lot easier to do reporting in comparison to the past because there is much greater access to internet and mobile phones in Myanmar. Plus, people have more appreciation for the role of media compared to the past. As they understood the benefits brought by the media, they started to cooperate. So, at present, regarding the gathering of news, we can gather it swiftly and contact and interview sources easily. Therefore, it has been easier and more convenient to gather and publish news compared to the past.

YN: Where is your news agency headquartered? Sittwe or Yangon? Is it online-only media or does it publish a journal?

KMK: We don’t have a printing press in Sittwe. We publish a journal. So, we have to run an office in Yangon and distribute journals to Arakan State. We also run a weekly TV program called Ethnic Language TV in cooperation with DVB. We also run online media. We have website and a Facebook page. It is more convenient to operate in Yangon because of greater access to electricity here than in Sittwe. Previously, Sittwe did not have access to electricity at all. It has just been one or two years that it has had access to electricity. As you know, as we need to publish news reports quickly, and make sure the news reports reach the people swiftly, we are headquartered in Yangon, which has convenient communications. And we also run a liaison office in Sittwe and have reporters in different places. They gather news and send it to us by phone or email.  So, though we’re headquartered in Yangon, we gather news by all means, not only by phone, but also in person and by email, and internet.

YN: As you said, [ethnic areas] don’t have electricity like major towns, and in some areas, the educational standards are much lower than those in major towns. You have to gather reporters to run a media outlet. So, Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, how are reporters gathered in remote towns? And what are the challenges for those wishing to become journalists?

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: There are various conflict issues, particularly in Kachin State, such as violations of human rights, and displacement from clashes. So, there is a greater need for reporters in order to make those voices heard. There are many youth [in Kachin State] who want to be journalists to reveal the truth and write about the plight of their people. Their difficulty lies in choosing media outlets to work in. Some of my friends gather those wishing to become journalists and organize basic journalism trainings with the assistance of religious leaders, and they are then trained by senior journalists. It is however quite hard for them to work in ethnic media outlets. There are various challenges both in terms of safety and pay for those working as journalists in ethnic areas. And compared to big news agencies in Yangon, media outlets in ethnic areas cannot take responsibility for the safety of their reporters. But again, if ethnic reporters come to work in Yangon, they have to engage with new people, as it is not their hometown, and have to try harder than others. For instance, they have to rent a house and so on. So, it is hard for ethnic people to pursue journalism careers.

YN: Most of the ethnic regions are experiencing conflicts. So how does the media in ethnic regions operate amid the conflicts between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups, between ethnic armed organizations themselves and between different ethnic groups?

NLHP: I have a friend, and when clashes recurred in 2011 in Kachin State, there were many people who got into trouble, and he wanted to help them. He decided to help as a reporter since it is difficult for reporters from Yangon to come and gather news in Kachin State because of the language barrier and unfamiliarity with the area. So, he sought the funds from organizations, and established Kachinwaves media. Almost six years after he established it, he still finds it difficult to identify himself as a reporter in conflict zones. Since he lives in the same area, when he comes back from conflict zones and writes reports, he is the only person who has to take responsibility for his report. There is no one who can protect him. Again, as he lives in Kachin [State] and is an ethnic Kachin, he is vulnerable to accusations. It is easy to accuse him of associating with ethnic armed groups and publishing misinformation. So, they have to consider their safety in making reports. Some of my Shan friends work as reporters in northern Shan State. But when they go to gather news from the Burma Army, they are accused of being the spies of ethnic armed groups. In some cases, if reporters get along with ethnic armed groups and it is easy to get news from them, the Burma Army will brand them as propagandists. In some cases, the army threatens to kill the reporters if they come, saying that they are spies.

YN: Ko Khaing Myat Kyaw, Arakan State is a sensitive area. So, what are the difficulties you face in reporting there?

KMK: Yes, there are also clashes in Arakan State between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Tatmadaw. But in covering those clashes, we can only get statements released by AA. And we have to make reports based on those statements. We could never phone and interview the Tatmadaw. So, anyway, those reports are not impartial, but biased. We have to refer to the sources of AA and the reports are therefore one-sided, and Tatmadaw accuses us of being biased toward the rebels. In fact, we don’t want to be like that. We do want to make balanced reporting. But we could never ever phone and interview Tatmadaw. So, the Tatmadaw needs to release the correct information in remote areas, especially in ethnic areas. We also have difficulties in gathering news, and we can’t get any information from the Arakan State government. As you said, Arakan State is a sensitive area with various problems. Therefore, misinformation can fuel the problems. In particular, no one [in state government] has ever answered about problems in Buthidaung and Maungdaw townships. And in case of storm, we need to inform the public immediately. But we could ask no one about the storm Mora. If we have to wait two or three days in such cases, the information will become useless. So, the problem is we have enormous difficulty with our right to information.

YN: The market for ethnic media is small in ethnic regions. And the spending power of ethnic media is also very limited. So, how do they survive?

KMK: The incumbent government said it would promote ethnic media and ethnic languages and culture. But it has only done so for those working in the ministries. For example, it provided cultural assistance for ethnic people working in [the state-run] MRTV and so on. But until today, the government has done nothing for independent [ethnic] news agencies. The former information minister U Ye Htut however discussed and reached some agreements with us for the development of ethnic languages. But the incumbent government still can’t materialize it—it will depend on the government’s policy. Again, most of the ethnic media have to rely on funds of international NGOs because we don’t have the market. We don’t have a market in which we can sell between 5,000 to 10,000 copies of newspapers. And we don’t get advertisements either. So, every [ethnic] journal is making a loss. So, if we didn’t get international assistance, it would be quite hard for ethnic media to survive.

NLHP: People in ethnic areas tend to have greater trust in their local ethnic media because of the language and contact. For example, Kachin people have greater trust in publications published in Kachin language as they can read it themselves. Publications from Yangon can’t arrive in a timely way because of poor transportation, and therefore there is a need for the development of ethnic media.  In some western countries, the governments impose taxes related to radio and television, and share it with the media. If the government would do this and help ethnic media, they would be able to operate even if they don’t get funds from international organizations.

KMK: Another thing is there is no ethnic radio station or TV channels owned by ethnicities. This is a big gap, I think. So, the government should ensure there are ethnic language-speaking TV channels in ethnic regions like Shan, Chin, Arakan and Mon. It also needs to encourage and enable ethnicities to operate community radio including FM. Only then, will there be a swifter flow of information, and the gap between us will be reduced.

YN: Thank you both for your contributions!