RANGOON — Their predecessors suffered torture, imprisonment and death at the hands of a die-hard military regime for more than half a century. Now, Burma’s journalists—newly fledged, muscle-flexing but also still apprehensive—are challenged with the first general election since 1960 to be covered with relative freedom.
The independent press for months has been girding itself with training and strategy sessions, figuring out how to breach barriers to polling access and expose cheating and other irregularities—both widely anticipated during what is heralded as a historic showdown Nov. 8 between the ruling party, backed by the still-powerful military, and one headed by pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
“It’s a milestone in my career and that of everyone here,” says Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of The Irrawaddy, earlier imprisoned for eight years for publishing a political journal and participating in the pro-democracy movement. “I told my reporters, ‘You have to have passion to cover these elections. You are not only doing your duty as journalists but serving your country. You are opening people’s eyes.’”
An explosion in the number of mobile telephone users—now up to about 20 million out of a population of 52 million—has allowed public access to news through the Internet. Facebook is the overwhelming social media vehicle.
Censorship was lifted in 2012, a year after a military junta gave way to a nominally elected government. Though broadcast media continues under firm government control, other independent outlets have mushroomed, and some feature outstanding journalists who have pushed the restrictive envelope the regime still maintains.
Some journalists, however, engage in partisan politics, filling columns with virulent, racist attacks against the country’s persecuted Rohingya Muslims and other minorities. Some are simply untutored in their profession.
“Some reporters are just giving the reader raw meat because they don’t know how to cook it,” says Aye Mya Kyaw, senior editor of the mass-circulation 7Day News Journal. “Their enthusiasm is high but their experience isn’t.”
Kyaw Zwa Moe points out that many newly minted reporters have never even voted in an election, let alone covered one. The last nationwide election, in 2010, was boycotted by Suu Kyi’s party and widely viewed as unfair.
Journalists who push too hard still risk imprisonment, or worse. Under the country’s 2014 media law, journalists can be charged and jailed for reports “likely to cause fear or alarm to the public,” ‘‘inflame conflicts regarding nationality, religion and race” or that delve into sensitive military matters.
Last year 11 journalists were jailed, including five sentenced to seven years’ hard labor for reporting on an alleged chemical weapons factory. Freelancer Aung Kyaw Naing was shot dead in military custody while covering conflict between the regime and ethnic insurgents in 2014. Some journalists have received death threats from ultra-nationalists and radical Buddhists for reporting on the Rohingya issue.
Journalists have reported that surveillance and interrogation by military intelligence operatives continues as it did in the days of the junta. In a report this year, Amnesty International described Burma’s treatment of media as “repression dressed up as progress.”
“Authorities are still relying on the same old tactics—arrests, surveillance, threats and jail time to muzzle those journalists who cover ‘inconvenient’ topics,” the rights group said.
Information Minister Ye Htut says the government usually ignores such reports because “they focus solely on freedom of expression” rather than the need for “responsibility and abidance by media ethics” during Burma’s transition to full democracy.
Ann Olson, an American journalist who has trained Burmese colleagues over the past 18 months, says some media owners censor themselves. “They can’t be sure they won’t be the next victims of the government’s crackdown on media,” she says.
Still, the media climate is significantly better than it was during the half-century in which the military ruled. Burma was ranked nearly at the bottom of Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index in 2010, but was 114th out of 180 countries this year. Journalists are able to get their message out as never before via some 40 major national print publications, numerous local outlets and cyberspace.
“This is the year of IT. Under the military we were blind,” says Hkhun Kyi Myint, a village elder in Karen state, 280 kilometers (174 miles) east of Rangoon. Several teenagers who sat in on his interview said they were all among the nearly 4 million Facebook users in Burma.
Ye Naing Moe, founder of the Yangon Journalism School, and others say there has been no egregious interference with the media in the lead-up to the elections, but they are concerned about polling day and especially its aftermath.
The school has trained more than 100 journalists in preparation for the election since May. It’s supported by foreign donors, including foundations of two American entrepreneurs, the Open Society Foundation of George Soros and The Omidyar Group of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Ye Naing Moe, a prominent journalist who has received death threats for his reporting on Muslims, made students familiar with past elections in Afghanistan, India and Western countries. He urged them to talk to as many voters as possible while pinning down politicians making vague statements and promises. “I wanted to take them out of the box,” he says.
“It’s exciting, important and some believe their vote will bring positive change, but it’s not a step that will change everything,” he says. “We still have the legacy of military rule, the economy is in the hands of the establishment and there is the constitution,” which enshrines much of the military’s power. “We still have to walk a long way.”
Kyaw Zwa Moe, the editor of The Irrawaddy, once could not imagine coming even this far. Years after being interrogated, tortured and incarcerated in the country’s biggest prison for his work, he’s covering an election in which a pro-democracy party might triumph.
On the walls of The Irrawaddy, which puts out a weekly paper in Burmese and online news in Burmese and English, he has posted edicts by Burma’s 19th-century King Mindon: “If I do wrong write about me,” and, “No one shall take action against any journal for writing the truth.” He hopes the country’s next leaders follow them as well.