Exiled print press goes quiet

Major funding cuts of some $US300,000 a year have forced leading exiled Burmese news organisation, The Irrawaddy, to cease printing its influential magazine.

The magazine’s informative news and analysis of political and humanitarian affairs was often critical of the Burmese regime, and thus like other independent Burmese media outlets, was banned inside Burma.

Although it was able to generate between six and eight percent of its revenue from subscriptions and commercial funding, editor-in-chief Aung Zaw tells DVB however that the problems were both economic and political.

The main donor agency to cease funding was Denmark’s Danida. Some saw their cessation of funding as policy-driven, in that The Irrawaddy was viewed by some as too belligerent towards the ruling military and the elections in November last year.

Aung Zaw said however that “we will never ever compromise our editorial independence”. He believes the donors’ decisions may have been swayed by civil society groups in Burma who do not share the Irrawaddy’s commitment to free media and expression.

Indeed a number of exiled Burmese groups were said to be suffering from funding cuts due to what Aung Zaw calls “donor fatigue”, which has forced them, as he says, to “suspend printing indefinitely”. The magazine had been forced to reduce printing volume in 2008 after similar cuts.

There is also a perception, Aung Zaw says, that following the widely-doubted elections, the necessity to fund external groups is no longer there. In any case most individuals returning to the country would face the same punitive measures from the government, and Burma’s draconian press censorship shows no sign of abating.

There had also been calls for the publication to achieve a more commercial, or sustainable, business model. However, “name a single exiled media outlet that turns profit,” Aung Zaw says.

Indeed The Irrawaddy’s economic woes reflect a wider malaise in media funding, with few turning a profit. International broadcasters that are publicly funded, such as the BBC, are also facing budget cuts due to the global economic downturn.

The Irrawaddy will still remain active however. Perhaps in a sign of the times, “we will focus on our website and the multimedia” aspect, said Aung Zaw, noting that the organisation will produce a radio show for Radio Free Asia (RFA) and a TV show aired on DVB that “will reach millions” of viewers inside the country.

The Irrawaddy is also confident that the slow yet steady penetration of the internet into Burma will allow more readers to access their content.

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