Burmese Press Revels in New-found Freedom

By Denis D. Gray 19 June 2012

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.”