Burma’s first private journalism school in more than half a century opened its doors in Rangoon on Monday morning, poised to prepare aspiring reporters for the country’s turbulent media environment. Courses began on 14 July for 15 students recruited from both private and state-run media houses.
“This is an historic moment,” said Thiha Saw, chairman of the school’s board of directors, at the groundbreaking ceremony. “I’m very proud of this institute, and I’m thankful to all of our friends, international friends, who made it happen.”
Founded in May of this year by 39 in-country media houses, the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI) says it aims to provide independent, professional multi-media training to Burma’s emerging fourth estate. The school will initially offer a part-time diploma programme to a small selection of working journalists, but expansion plans are in place. Eventually, he said, MJI would like to open schools in all of the country’s major cities, and offer full-time study for students with and without prior experience.
The institute has an eight-member directorate comprising professionals working in print, broadcast and digital media, though all are affiliated with officially registered media houses, which excludes many of Burma’s most long-standing media service providers and some smaller, ethnically-focussed news organisations.
The project, while locally owned and managed, is funded by a consortium of international backers, who receive funds from the Danish, French, German and Swedish governments. Members include Deutshe Welle, Fojo Media Institute and International Media Support . UNESCO plays a supportive role, but is not financing the project, according to vice-chairman and Mizzima editor Soe Myint.
Since the consortium began envisioning the project about two years ago, the context has changed significantly. Ambassadors of both France and Germany, present at today’s groundbreaking ceremony, upheld their support for the school based on the urgent need to professionalise Burma’s media sector. They both, however, were clear in their criticism of the government for its worsening treatment of journalists, which reached a tipping point last week.
“I have to say, as a true friend of Myanmar [Burma], I was shocked, I was shocked, to hear about the recent sentence for journalists, investigative journalists, a sentence of ten years plus hard labour,” said Christian-Ludwig Weber-Lortsch, Germany’s Ambassador to Burma. He was referring to the case of four reporters and one CEO of Unity Weekly news journal who were convicted under the Official Secrets Act after publishing an investigative report alleging that a mysterious military facility was used for the production of chemical weapons. The government denied the allegations but charged them under the 1923 law nonetheless, and courts slapped them with what many see as a disturbingly heavy-handed punishment.
To make matters worse, 50 journalists who protested the judgment on Saturday in Rangoon may face charges for unlawful assembly.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we live in the 21st century,” said Weber-Lortsch.
“The free-flow of information, and competition of ideas, is essential to the development of any country,” he added. “We need the checks and balances of free media, to properly inform the general public and monitor governments.”
During the decades of military rule preceding President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government, media was tightly controlled by a censorship board and channeled through state-owned media enterprises. Very few journalism courses were on offer, and all of them were state-backed.
The new government has been widely praised for a series of quickly instituted media reforms, including the disbandment of the censorship board in August 2012. But a series of arrests and other forms of intimidation targeting journalists over the past two years have cast doubt on the sincerity of press progress in Burma.