Changing patterns in Burma's media

Htet Aung Kyaw

Feb 25, 2009 (DVB), With one of the most strictly-controlled media environments in the world, Burmese journalists who oppose the military government are forced to work in secret, with the prospect of lengthy imprisonment an everyday threat.

Exiled news organizations in countries such as Thailand and India work covertly with networks of journalists inside Burma, receiving and publishing articles and commentary on political developments inside the country.

The last few years have also seen a rise in internet bloggers, and subsequently a fierce crackdown by the regime. In 2008, two bloggers were jailed for 20 years each for publishing critical material of General Than Shwe.

DVB spoke to a number of journalists and media experts, both Burmese and foreign, to discuss the current media environment within Burma, and to highlight the differences for media inside and outside the country.

Maung Maung Myint is chair of the Burmese Media Association, Kyaw Zwa Moe is deputy editor of The Irrawaddy, and Larry Jagan is a freelance journalist with a focus on Burma.

DVB began by asking what the current situation is like for media freedom in Burma.

Maung Maung Myint: "It’s obvious that Burmese government’s pressure on the media inside the country has been more intensified since after the 2007 September uprisings , there has been sentencing of journalists and media right activists to long prison terms throughout this time.

"The situation on the Burmese media freedom is not good and we think it will be the same until 2010. After that, if we are unlucky, things will even get worse."

Kyaw Zwa Moe: "In Burma, now we have more journalists than we had 20 years ago. Despite various difficulties, the censor laws and the pressure from the government, they are doing what they can with an increased capacity."

"And we see that they are trying their best to reach their message and information to the audience."

Larry Jagan: "Twenty years ago the Burmese media was completely government-controlled and no dissident or different opinions were allowed.

"Now we see, particularly in the print media, a proliferation of magazines and newspapers, none of which are necessarily anti-government but many of which have pushed the boundaries of journalism, particularly on issues like HIV/Aids, the environment, and the economy."

DVB: What is the significance of the outside media? Are exiled journalists affected by bias, and do foreign journalists have adequate expertise?

Kyaw Zaw Moe: "It is important for the journalists to be independent. There is always a factor about self-censorship, such as not criticising the democratic movement even when there is something wrong with it because the journalist himself/herself has is from the movement.

"This depends on how much they believe, understand and how much ethics they follow in their journalist profession."

Maung Maung Myint: "I don’t see that the Burmese youths who became journalists out of the 1988 uprising and the other movements are holding bias thoughts just because they came from that path.

"They have their brain, and their own ability to see and hear things and they have their common sense to differentiate what is right or wrong. If one values his or her own status of being a journalist, then he or she will also value the quality of the news which is measured by truthfulness.

"A journalist who respects this will stand on the same side with the truth."

Kyaw Zaw Moe: "Another issue we are having with the media outside is that, we always emphasise on being the first to publish a news without trying to verify whether the information in it real or not, because the competition among the organisations here is big."

DVB: How much confidence can we can have in the outside media (with non-independent journalists and organisations worried about funding) and the inside media (with issues of oppression and self-censorship)?

Kyaw Zwa Moe: "I am positive about this. Despite increasing pressure from the government, we are having more committed journalists who aim for a more successful, independent media society in Burma.

"To have a say what will happen in next five years, it depends a lot on how much we, the media both inside and outside Burma, have in our mind to learn, devote and follow the media ethics."

Maung Maung Myint: "As long as there are people inside Burma who are fighting for the media freedom with a great sacrifice, the future light of the Burmese media will never go dim.

"At the same time, the media people inside Burma need to have an active communication with the media people outside. In that way, we will have more understanding towards each other and a better channel of information flow which will profit the people of Burma to get more knowledge and information.

"This is an achievement we have already gained to some level, but I have to admit that, we, the media people, have to do more than this as our people are not living in freedom like people in other countries."

Larry Jagan: "What I would say is that my experience is that Burmese journalists inside the country are very courageous. They try to push the boundaries quietly in their own way. They know far more than they are ever able to get into print.

"In the last five years or so there has been some very good training of Burmese journalists but what they all tell me is that we are waiting for the day when democracy comes so that we can be real journalists because there's no way we can be journalists under the military regime."

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