Plans Afoot to Launch European-Backed Journalism School in Burma

By Simon Lewis 10 December 2013

RANGOON — Burma’s journalists have been operating free of the censor for more than a year now, and privately owned newspapers regularly publish critical stories once unthinkable under the country’s military regime. But, with many in the industry lacking training and concerns over reporting standards and lingering self-censorship, a project backed by European governments is hoping to establish a new institution to provide international-quality journalism education.

During a high-profile conference on women’s issues in Rangoon on Saturday, the Myanmar Journalism School project, which organizers admitted was only at an embryonic stage, was announced by French Minister of Culture Aurélie Filippetti. France is providing funding for the project, alongside the governments of Denmark, Germany, Norway and Sweden.

“The aim of the school is to give to young journalists training sessions to help them to produce content of very high quality and also to meet the highest international standards in the freedom of information and quality of information,” Filippetti told reporters.

“That’s a very ambitious program which [will] take place in a moment where Myanmar is opening its society and needs to have wide and diverse information.”

Organizers said they hoped to begin a one-year diploma course in journalism in July 2014, but were unable to give details yet on how students would be selected for the course, the content of the curriculum or how much the course would cost students.

Burmese Minister of Information Aung Kyi was present at the launch Saturday. But during the press conference to announce the project, Aung Kyi delivered a speech on an unrelated subject—involving coordination in Burma and France’s film industries—and did not give an express endorsement of the journalism school project. Neither of the ministers answered questions from reporters on the project.

Monika Lengauer, project coordinator for the journalism school-to-be, said by e-mail on Tuesday that official approval was still “pending,” but “the project has been assured of the official support.”

The project has already received an estimated 100,000 euro (US$137,000) of funding from donors. Going forward, “the funding is another thing that needs to be decided,” Lengauer said during Saturday’s press conference. “What I can tell you is that all donors or partners that are here today are committed on the long term.”

She said studies would be conducted on exactly how the school will be governed and details would soon be worked out. Sweden’s Fojo media institute has already trained 12 Burmese journalists to be trainers for the school, where lessons will be conducted in Burmese, she said.

With the only existing journalism school in the country closely associated with the government, and a long history of official meddling in journalism in Burma, Lengauer said one priority highlighted in early discussions about the project was the school’s independence.

“The indications of the media industry and civil society highlighted in focus group discussions made clear that Myanmar Journalism School needs to aim at being independent—that has been an overwhelming priority—with a broad, national ownership, anchored in civil society and media industry, reflecting best international practices in quality journalism education,” she said.

“Myanmar Journalism School will promote…universal journalistic values, rooted in ethics, and resulting in trustworthy reporting.”

The school would be non-profit and scholarships would likely be available for students, she said.

Ramon Tuazon, a communication and information specialist at the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) in Myanmar, which is supporting the project, stressed that the school would be “inclusive” in its admissions.

“In fact, as early as now we are thinking of the needs also not only of journalists from Yangon, Naypyidaw or Mandalay, but even ethnic people. Ethnic journalists will happily be accepted here and will be part of this program,” he said.

The school does not yet have a location, but one possible site is within the country’s only existing journalism school at the National Management College (NMC), part of Rangoon University, which has been running a four-year journalism degree program since 2007.

The school has this year begun using a curriculum based on a model drawn up by Unesco, but the course guidelines had previously been written by the Ministry of Information. It had been largely a training school for Burma’s state-run media, which acts as a mouthpiece for the government.

“It’s really a facility to train functionaries, public administrators to manage PR [public relations] for, and to administer, government policy,” said Glen Swanson, project coordinator in Myanmar for Denmark’s International Media Support—which is backing the school.

“Actually that has to be closed,” he added. “That [NMC] is obsolete, but the physical institution is there embedded within the university. So we’re hoping that while we work with the transformation of the National Management College, we can eventually roll the school into that.”