The role of the media in Burma's transition to democracy

Htet Aung Kyaw

Feb 20, 2009 (DVB), In much of Europe, the US, Australia and Japan, media workers are safe and sound. But in Burma, while the military junta is still in power, it is very difficult and dangerous work.

One foreign journalist was killed in the 2007 Saffron Revolution while some citizen journalists are still missing. At least twelve journalists were detained during the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the constitutional referendum in May 2008. Some received long-term prison sentences, including bloggers Zarganar and Nay Phone Latt, while print journalists have been jailed for three to seven years.

There were three reasons why these people were arrested. One: for sending information and pictures to exile media, including DVB. Two: for reporting stories about the life of Nargis refugees, corruption in the judicial system and whatever else the government does not want the public to know about, in private journals in Rangoon. Three: for writing stories about Nargis and the Saffron Revolution on blogs. According to the Burma Media Association and Reporters Sans Frontieres, at least 12 journalists and dozens of media workers including poets and writers are still in jail.

The media in Burma

In my view, there are six kinds of media in Burma. One is the government’s 100 percent controlled media, such as state-run TV, short wave and FM radio and newspapers. Two is the 75 percent government-controlled media or so-called private print media, including around 300 journals and magazines.

Three is the exile or foreign-based broadcast media, such as DVB’s satellite TV, short wave radio service from DVB, RFA (Radio Free Asia), VOA (Voice of America) and the BBC’s Burmese Service. Four is the internet news services based in exile, such as the English-language Irrawaddy and Mizzima, or the New Era and Network Media Group in Burmese.

Five is the ethnic language internet news service, such as the Independent Mon News Agency, Kachin News Group, Kaladan Press, Kantarawaddy Times, Kaowao News, Khonumthung News, Narinjara News and Shan Herald Agency for News. The DVB airs 30 minutes of ethnic language programmes every day while the RFA also airs some broadcasts. Six is the blogs inside and outside the country.

According to some researchers, the biggest audiences (around 5 to 10 million listeners or 10 to 20 percent of the country’s population) are reached by foreign-based short wave radios , VOA, BBC, RFA and DVB, while DVB‘s satellite TV takes second place. The third is likely to be government-controlled TV and radio while private weekly journals are fourth. However, internet news services and blogs are gaining popularity these days, especially among young people, although the government trying to control access strictly.

What is the media doing today?

Every day in Burma, state-controlled TV just shows the generals and government officials visiting some development projects while the government radio airs the generals’ speeches. The next day in the newspapers, print journalists repeat the same stories with some pictures added and harsh words to attack opposition and western countries who sanction them. So the audiences lose interest on government media but they turn on the TV to watch Korean movies and also buy the newspapers to read the obituaries and skip straight to the back page where they are found.

Journalists working for the 300 private journals and magazines have no chance to write stories on political, economic or social issues as these are censored by the Press Scrutiny Board. Instead, every week they just print pictures of sexy ladies, stories about fashion and pop music, horoscopes and foreign sport news. Even then, they are not allowed to write the country’s losing sport and so all sport journals focus instead on the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and the UEFA Cup. However, the public is still buying the journals as they want to find out about local news which is rare to see in the government-controlled media or exile broadcasts.

Meanwhile, the exile or foreign-based media’s main focus is the opposition and pro-democracy movement inside the country and overseas. The crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the death toll from Cyclone Nargis and the long prison terms given to hundreds of activist have been the main stories over the past year or so. Apart from the opposition movement, most other stories focus on local authorities’ abuse of power, such as the use of force labour, forced portering and guard duty, land confiscation and extortion. They also air stories on the hardship of people’s daily life. But it is still rare to hear stories about education, social issues, health, the environment and grassroots activism as we are far from the ground. We also have difficulties trying to interview government officials and so some stories are still one-sided.

Censorship and self-censorship

According to RSF, the government in Burma has used a very large spectrum of mechanisms and policies to oppress journalists and suppress freedom of expression. All the news stories and articles which you see in private journals and magazines in Rangoon has been censored by Press Scrutiny Board. The main job of publishers and chief editors is to try to strike a good deal with PSB officials, which means giving gifts of whisky, tobacco or money to encourage them to approve their stories on time. All stories must be sent to the PSB a week before their publishing date so the news in private journals is never up to date.

Moreover, every journal and magazine must add at least one story from the Information Ministry , either propaganda about government activities or an attack on the opposition and the pro-democracy movement. Sometimes, when the propaganda machine is busy, chief editors are pressured to write these stories themselves. Every journalist needs permission from the relevant ministers to interview any civil servant. Young and active journalists have often been detained on the accusation that they have not had proper permission from a minister. In some cases, journalists have been beaten up by government thugs for trying to write about corruption of officials or murder cases.

Meanwhile, journalists in exile, especially donor-based media organisations, face a different form of censorship or self-censorship. "You can criticise the military regime as much as you want but leave us alone," is a big joke in our circle, referring to the unofficial warning from the pro-democracy groups. Many politicians in exile and inside the country have a limited understanding of the role of independent media. They are still not sure if we are their comrades or independent media guys. This is because most journalists working for the exile media are former activists. In actual fact, we are heading for the same goal , democracy , but in different ways.

"Now is not the right time for criticism within the movement. All it will do is benefit the enemies of the democracy movement and the military regime," some politicians have told me.

Moreover, there are different kinds of donors , some prefer to promote media freedom while others prefer to support the opposition movement. Some pro-democracy groups have sent letters of complaint to donors when we have criticised the weak points of the exile movement. This could make it very hard for those of us media organisations who want to play an independent role in the coming 2010 election, which most pro-democracy groups oppose. They are still holding on to the result of the 1990 election and are demanding this result be respected before a new election can go ahead.

What is the role of media in the 2010 election and the transition to democracy?

Many observers say that foreign-based Burmese language short wave radio stations and satellite TV will play a key role in the upcoming election, in contrast to the 1990 election. This is because DVB was only born in 1992 and RFA in 1997 while the BBC and VOA only began to play an active role after DVB and RFA were set up. But no one knows yet how much the regime will allows the foreign media to cover the run-up to the election. As we all know, the junta did not allow foreign journalists to cover the Nargis aftermath last year or the Saffron Revolution in 2007. However, all media in exile, especially DVB‘s satellite TV broadcast, are constantly providing up to date information. So this might continue as we approach the pre-election era.

I’m not sure how the situation will change in the run-up to the election. But one thing I’m sure of is that we now have a key role to play urging the public to tell the truth. Here in Barcelona, or in other European countries, telling the truth is normal, but it is very dangerous in Burma. One foreign diplomat was jailed for three years in Burma for using a fax machine without proper permission from the authorities in 1996. At least one MP was jailed for seven years for giving a telephone interview to the BBC in 1998. At least one more person was imprisoned for listening to our broadcast over a loudspeaker in 1999. Two men were jailed for seven years for reading the New Era Journal in 2002. Since 2002, many more have been jailed in connection with media activities but the junta no longer prosecutes them under media law but instead brings criminal charges.

In this situation, urging the public to speak out is not an easy task. But we have had people calling in every day since 2002. This is because our media , I mean all foreign-based radio and internet news services , is the one place where they can tell the truth or express their true feelings. Most of our audience’s true feelings are, "Can no one take action against this regime and the local authorities who abuse their power?" The most of civilian in Burma are still used for force labour, forced portering and guard duty, or are victims of land confiscation or extortion by soldiers, police and local authorities, day in, day out. But, despite hundreds of complaint letters sent by these villagers to the government offices in Naypyidaw, no one can take action against these authorities.

"Talking to you radio stations is the only way to take action against the local authorities who abuse their power," I was told by an editor in Rangoon. "I have seen a lot of evidence of action being taken after you broadcast news stories about their abuses. This is a good sign for the media" the editor commented. That is why many members of the public, including farmer, villagers and tribespeople in the countryside talk to us. But the authorities, although they monitor our broadcasts, never reply to our enquiries.

Supporting independent media

An independent media is vital in the transition to democracy in Burma. Although there is no independent media in the country, we exile journalists and some active journalists in private journals in Rangoon are playing a key role in urging the people to speak out. I hope that telling the truth can be the first step towards acting on the truth, and perhaps in this way the people will vote for the opposition in the election and will no longer be afraid of the military.

I want to urge the EU and the Western community to use some of their money for media projects and to encourage people to tell the truth. Not only supporting the exile media, but also looking for any opportunity to challenge government control of the media and to change the mindset of the generals who see the media as their enemy. Unless the generals’ negative view of independent media can be changed, it will remain hard for foreign journalists to go Burma.

Recently, some Scandinavian ministers visited to Burma with a media crew from their country to check how the military regime was using their donation of hundreds of millions of kroner to Nargis-affected areas. But the regime would not allow the media crew into the area, only the ministers. This is unacceptable to a democratic community that respects independent monitoring, transparency, accountability and credibility. Without media oversight, how can you donate millions of Euros to the military regime? Should you still donate if the military takes 50 percent of your donation? But if you do not, the people not even get that 50 percent.

Let me conclude this discussion with a comment from RSF’s Asia director, Vincent Brossel: "As we usually say, ‘There is no freedom without press freedom.’ But in the case of Burma, we might say, ‘There will be no press freedom without democracy.'"

Htet Aung Kyaw is a senior journalist for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma.

This commentary was originally presented at a conference on the role of media in Burmese conflict resolution organised by Burma Campaign Spain in Barcelona in early February.

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