German Press Corps Offers Lessons for Fledgling Burmese Counterparts

By Nyein Nyein 16 September 2013

BERLIN, Germany — A pre-autumn chill in the air of Germany’s capital brought a shiver to some of the tropically acclimated Burmese journalists on a trip to study political reporting here, in a country thousands of miles from Southeast Asia that, like Burma, has its own history of authoritarian repression.

A group of 10 Burmese journalists from private print, broadcast and online media ventured northwest last week to observe press practices in Germany, which has transitioned from rule under one of history’s most notorious dictators to a beacon of democratic stability in Europe.

In Berlin, the journalists sat in on a press conference organized by Germany’s political reporting corps. For a country once cowed by the bellicose dictates of Adolf Hitler, the German press today is a tenacious and assertive force in the political discourse.

Three times a week, a press conference is hosted by the Federal Press Conference (Bundespressekonferenz in the German language), and attended by government spokespersons representing each cabinet ministry. Unlike many press conferences the world over, where the give and take between reporters and public figures is tightly managed by the latter, the Bundespressekonferenz event puts the journalists in charge.

“The speakers cannot leave the room until the journalists are done with their questions,” said moderator Nick Leifert, a Bundespressekonferenz board member. According to Leifert, the forum offers an opportunity for political correspondents from smaller German publications to ask questions of high-level cabinet officials.

German politicians are in the home stretch of their political campaigns and political journalists are equally busy reporting them ahead of national elections on Sept. 22.

Germany’s independent Bundespressekonferenz and its system of eliciting formal information from the government was deemed an enviable arrangement by the observing Burmese journalists, who exist in an information-starved political system despite recent reforms toward more openness and accountability in the Southeast Asian nation.

In Burma, the media environment has seen whirlwind changes since the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein took the reins in March 2011. In the last two years, several journalists’ associations have been established and the government set up an interim Press Council, which is in the early stages of revamping the nation’s press laws and media monitoring.

Journalist and writer Pe Myint, editor of the Burmese weekly The People’s Age and a member of the observing press delegation, said despite the dramatic reforms to Burma’s media landscape, the country’s journalists were not yet on par with their German counterparts.

“We now have the journalists’ associations, but there are only a few activities taking place, as well as many journalists not being a member of any of those groups yet,” Pe Myint said.

“The journalists’ associations could join hands together to become a journalists’ league, like this club. The Germans have had this tradition for many years, for six decades.”

Pe Myint and other journalists on the Germany trip agreed that the thrice-weekly Bundespressekonferenz event provided a good forum for the government to inform the press of its activities. Apart from the Bundespressekonferenz, the government has its own slate of press conferences and broadcast outlets for spreading information to private media and the public.

One of the major differences between Germany and Burma is the absence in Germany of state-run daily newspapers, which have long served as government propaganda in Burma. The German government’s Press Office is responsible only for communicating information to the nation’s privately run media.

Pe Myint said the German model showed a commitment to transparency and assured that journalists were free of control from others.

“In Burma, such a practice would be very helpful for us while we undergo democratic reform,” he added.

Germany’s culture of openness and press empowerment was not an overnight creation, and took many years to achieve. The Burmese journalists last week also traveled to Leipzig, site of one of those battles for freedom of expression.

The city, in the eastern German state of Saxony, was the scene of peaceful protests in October 1989 that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall one month later. Leipzig played an important role in reuniting East and West Berlin, a seminal moment in the Cold War’s dying days.

“They [German journalists] said Leipzig is the place where the first daily newspaper was printed in the 1650s, so a free press has been rooted in their tradition since long ago,” Pe Myint said.

“When they [Germany] shaped their democratic transition, they managed it well and Burma should gradually adopt such a system while we are in democratic transition,” he added.

The Irrawaddy reporter Nyein Nyein and nine other Burmese journalists were invited to observe German press practices by DW Akademie, an international center for media development funded by the German government.