Exciting Times for Burmese Media

By Myint Thin 5 December 2012

Southeast Asia’s most exciting media market today is in Burma. Newspapers and journals pop up every day to demonstrate this dynamism and eagerness for more information. When the government allows daily newspapers in coming weeks, a lot more publications will go on sale.

This phenomenon will transform the once-isolated nation into a new media tiger in future decades. As in Indonesia after the downfall of President Suharto in 1998, the long-gagged press was finally set free prompting hundreds of new publications plus television and radio stations in just a few months.

The major difference here is the existing proliferation of newspapers and journals. In other countries in the region—particularly members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations—printed media is becoming a thing of the past.

In Thailand, newspapers are now shutting down followed media booms in the 1980s and 90s. Mainstream news outlets are cutting staff and streamlining operational costs as they move towards digital versions.

In Malaysia, digital and online media have become the norm due to the high percentage of internet penetration. The situation is similar in the Philippines where online users boast the world record for the most short-message social network dispatches.

However, the print media in Burma is alive and well. With the country opening up domestically and links with the international community being restored and newly established, there are lots more stories to write and report.

Indeed, thousands of young journalists are facing new challenges that industry veterans did not encounter. In the past, issues were less complicated and sophisticated. After all, there was no press freedom. Almost all the information was spoon-fed by various propaganda and public relations departments with a state-centric perspective.

Now younger journalists have to go out and gather news on their own without these media releases. They have to compete both in their professionalism and the quality of their writing and reporting. In addition, they are also confronting new facets they have never encountered before.

For instance, the recent happenings in Arakan State and the demonstrations against mining operations in various parts of the country are testing new ground. Besides trying to get the facts and understand each particular event in its proper context, they also have to take care of themselves.

During anti-government demonstrations, journalists covering the news have to be well-protected to do their jobs safely. They must prepare properly and liaise with their colleagues and offices. Thai, Filipino and Indonesian journalists have good advice to share with colleagues working in Burma as they have been through these difficult experiences before.

These journalists all wear armbands to identify themselves as media. They also have medical kits in their bags just in case of unexpected clashes or blood-letting. In Thailand and the Philippines, journalists now sport bulletproof vests and undergo special training to report in extreme circumstances. In extraordinary situations, journalists must be ready by taking extraordinary precautions.

At the moment, the public is extremely interested in international news, especially when related to their country. Burma has just emerged from a long period of seclusion and is now reconnecting with the rest of the world.

News about new relations, foreign investments, types of foreign assistance and so on are of public interest. After their government undertook reforms and enacted new regulatory measures, the Burmese have to adapt to a new political, economic and social environment.

Essentially, the people here want to know where their nation is standing and how it is heading into the future. That explains why people move in the same direction and are on the same page when there is a change of policy. All these perceptions will certainly have the hand of the media involved.

In the months and years to come, there will be winners and losers in the media industry. Some will lose their independence in the process as the market can only afford a handful of newspapers or journals. Only good and accountable journalism and publications that earn public trust will survive.

U Myint Thin is a Burmese pseudonym for a veteran Thai journalist residing in Rangoon. His regular column, Across Irrawaddy, appears every Wednesday.