Journalism in Burma:<br> Dead or Alive?

When asked to explain the state of journalism and press freedom in Burma, I usually answer that there is good news and bad news. You might say that this is normal for any country. But in the case of Burma, I would have to say that the bad news always outweighs the good.

So, what is the good news?

Well, I am happy to report that journalism in Burma is still alive, even though, as I have often said and written in the past, it remains in a coma.

There are many young writers in Burma who want to become journalists. Since the military regime took power in 1988, many young and committed reporters have secretly or legally fled Burma to take short- or long-term journalism courses in neighboring countries or the West.

In Burma, senior journalists who can still remember when press freedom existed inside the country continue to carry the torch by informally teaching young reporters about their trade. Even in Burma’s prisons, there are veteran journalists who are sharing their knowledge with younger political prisoners.

Needless to say, being an outspoken journalist in Burma requires great courage.

Myo Myint Nyein, a Burmese magazine editor who was freed from prison just this year, demonstrated such courage when he told the BBC Burmese-language service recently that Burmese prison authorities have been misleading international envoys.

In his interview, Myo Myint Nyein said it was normal practice for prison authorities to relax restrictions on prisoners ahead of inspections by international agencies, allowing detainees to talk to each other and move around more freely.

This interview was given shortly after Myo Myint Nyein’s release from prison, where he served a 12-year sentence for writing a satirical poem and a letter to the UN about harsh prison conditions. Speaking so frankly about the regime’s deceptions could have landed him back in jail for many years, but fortunately, the authorities did not touch him this time.

Burma needs more Myo Myint Nyeins, people who are willing to speak out against oppression, to give a truer picture of what is really going on inside the country and its notorious prisons. Hopefully more public figures of his integrity will start giving interviews to radio stations such as BBC, Radio Free Asia (RFA), Voice of America (VOA) and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).

Aside from events in Burma, Burmese living in Thailand, Bangladesh, India and Japan are also learning about journalism and participating in the movement to keep a free and independent press alive.

Over the years, I have seen many more human rights information groups become full-fledged media groups. Just in the past five years, I have witnessed the emergence of a number of Burmese news agencies based in exile, including the Shan Herald Agency for News, Kao Wao, Narinjara, Mizzima and New Vision.

The Irrawaddy Publishing Group, the organization to which I belong, has been around even longer: This year marks our tenth anniversary.

Though our editorial policies may differ, all of these news agencies have been working hard to provide as much information as possible to readers both inside and outside of Burma.

Although we are still young, small, and struggling, I believe that we can look forward to the day when we have a chance to run as independent news agencies in Burma. I cannot speak for the other groups that I've mentioned, but our main objective at the Irrawaddy Publishing Group is to someday set up a truly independent news agency in Burma, when political circumstances permit.

We strive to provide news-starved Burmese readers with real news, not propaganda. We see ourselves as guardians of democracy, using our press freedom to expose abuses of power wherever they may occur.

We have to look ahead to the post-dictatorship era. We have to consider not only our current role, but also our future role in a democratic Burma. As journalists, we need to ask ourselves how we will deal with the pressures of a society where editorial interference from commercial sponsors and even democratically elected politicians may take the place of the more blatant censorship of a dictatorship.

So far, we have had the support of donors who are committed to press freedom and a free, democratic Burma. In the future, once we are in Burma, we will have to be more self-reliant.

Negative News

What is the bad news about the state of journalism in Burma? How do we define negative news?

Last Thursday, September 12, 2002, Deputy Home Minister Thura Myint Maung, who is also a high-ranking army officer, summoned publishers and owners of magazines and journals for a meeting. He announced that his government would no longer issue publishing licenses for private journals or magazines. He said that licenses would only be issued to agencies associated with the government.

Until recently, police, intelligence officers and ministries owned publishing licenses. In Burma, there are about 100 weekly and monthly journals and magazines, and publishing licenses are owned by the above-mentioned agencies. Private individuals own fewer than 20 journals. Publishing license has to be renewed annually.

This is indeed bad news. We all know that in Burma, whatever materials we want to publish have to go through the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB), which is now controlled by intelligence officers.

With regard to the degree of censorship, my senior colleague in Rangoon told me last week that it is getting worse.

Ironically, PSB dictates Burma’s news. They are now telling journalists and writers that you can criticize the West, but you cannot write critical stories or commentaries on Japan and Malaysia because they are the junta’s close allies, donors and business partners.

At the same time, one cannot write about prominent women leaders in the region, such as Indonesia president Megawati Sukarnoputri or the Philippines president, Gloria Arroyo. The military leaders are worried that Burmese will be reminded of Aung San Suu Kyi, who was recently released from house arrest.

When the relationship between Burma and Thailand went into a tailspin, writers and reporters in Rangoon were instructed to refer to Thailand as “Yodaya.” But recently, Rangoon has changed its tone by issuing a new order.

My colleagues in Rangoon also sensed that as the military leaders are showing support for America’s “war on terrorism”, they might soon ask writers not to write or publish anti-American articles.

PSB officials are also looking out for any unusual wording or sensitive sentences.

About three months ago, the Rangoon-based “Readers Journal” was shut down. The reason was an article that mentioned the name of an exiled journalist who is quite well known and now living in America. In fact, they misspelled his name, Kyemon U Thaung, as "Kyemon U Thaw". U Thaung was a founder of the Kyemon newspaper in the 1950s, and is now living in Florida. But he is a regular contributor to the Washington-based Radio Free Asia (RFA), which is critical of the regime.

In fact, there are many blacklisted writers and reporters in Burma. But the officials do not reveal the list.

According to reliable sources, there are about 100 writers and journalists who are blacklisted. They include senior and respected male and female writers.

Recently, I had a chance to interview opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi by phone.

One of my first questions was about press freedom in Burma. I asked her whether her party is allowed to publish a party news bulletin. Aung San Suu Kyi said, "Regarding the dissemination of information, we will apply for the right (to publish a party newspaper). We have a plan (to do so). We’ll see whether this will be allowed. As you mentioned, we have already accepted that there must be freedom of expression and (dissemination of information through media) to bring about a democracy."

About a month later, I had a second interview with her. I asked her if there had been any new developments in her efforts to get a publishing license. But she said there had been no improvement.

Enemy of the press

If we look at the rest of Southeast Asia, we find that much of the region is experiencing a greater degree of democracy and openness than in the past.

Yet in Burma, the opposite is true. This country, still ruled by generals, remains one of the region’s most restrictive and repressive countries.

In 1998, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) described Burma and Indonesia as the region's two foremost enemies of the press. Yet, since the fall of Suharto in that same year, Indonesia's mass media has blossomed, leaving Burma with the dubious distinction of being the region's number one adversary of the press.

Among the taboo topics in Burma are storms and fires, plane crashes, student brawls in teashops, regional turmoil, and the activities of the opposition party. Private magazine and journals are not allowed to mention Aung San Suu Kyi by name.

At the beginning of this year, a massive fire broke out in Yenanchaung, central Burma, causing numerous deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes. Nevertheless, the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) failed to inform the public of this event. The public's right to information is non-existent in Burma.

Government mouthpieces such as The New Light of Myanmar and The Mirror shied away from reporting this news because of the unfavorable light their coverage could cast on the regime. And local journals did not dare mention the alleged coup attempt by former dictator General Ne Win's family members.

Real journalism is not possible in Burma, say many editors and writers in the country. Since reporters cannot write freely, readers try to feel the meaning for themselves.

Thus, news-starved Burmese tune in to short-wave radio stations such as BBC, VOA or RFA for alternative news. These radio stations have gained popularity because the government's news dispatches are not considered reliable. And journalists are wary of government intrusion, too. Rangoon-based correspondents working for wire services are wary of contacting outsiders since they know their phones are being tapped. Recently, a journalist who was covering the surprising arrest of Ne Win's family members shared with me that he “was really worried after I wrote the story (of the arrest). I was waiting for visitors." By visitors, he meant intelligence officers. He was fortunate: No visitor arrived.

Similarly, weekly journals published by local journalists "understood" that they should not run the story about the attempted coup since they are also under the watchful eye of Burma's "media police," the Press Scrutiny Board.

Like their counterparts in Cambodia and Thailand, countries where hired hit men often silence critical voices with grenades or bullets, reporters in Burma must have great courage to adhere to the principles of journalism.

Though Burmese journalists don't necessarily confront such murderous threats, publishing critical pieces without PSB approval can earn writers lengthy prison sentences. It is estimated that 12 Burmese journalists are currently in prison for their work. One of them is U Win Tin, 72, editor of the Hanthawaddy newspaper, a popular publication in the 1970s.

Not only locals, but also foreign journalists are under pressure. Recently, the military regime blacklisted 15 Thai journalists. This was the result of tensions between the two countries, making journalists the victims of these two nations’ stormy relations.

There are also some Western journalists on Burma's media blacklist. Therefore, foreign journalists who want to go to Burma must be careful about writing critical articles against the regime. But occasionally, they are welcomed with open arms--usually when the government wants them to witness some publicity stunt, such as one of the massive narcotics bonfires that the generals are so fond of.

Burma’s “e-era”

Now the generals are proudly talking about the "e-era" in Burma. These days, everything starts with an "e": e-passport, e-communication, and e-banking. The regime clearly wants to give the impression that it is abreast of the latest technology.

With advances in information technology, the generals are now also frightened by the possibilities of electronic communication and the Internet, even though penetration of these technologies is quite small. There are some 4,000 e-mail users in Burma, which has a population of 50 million. The military junta recently announced that it would issue 10,000 new e-mail accounts. But they also restrict access to 800 Internet Web sites in addition to 50 Web sites on the local Intranet. Authorities monitor all incoming and outgoing e-mail messages.

Ne Win Regime and the End of Free Press Era

Burma's first constitution in 1947 guaranteed citizens the right to freely express their opinions and convictions. This gave Burma a reputation for having one of the freest presses in Asia. But following the military coup in 1962, press freedom vanished in Burma and Burmese journalists came under increased scrutiny. Many were thrown into prison. Newspapers were nationalized and foreign news agencies were told to pack their bags. This marked the beginning of the information dark-ages in Burma.

A new constitution in 1974 also granted freedom of expression. Under Ne Win's 26-year socialist dictatorship, however, all forms of public expression were subjected to the Press Scrutiny Board to ensure that these “freedoms” would be expressed only "within the accepted limits of the 'Burmese Way to Socialism.’"

Today, public access to information in Burma is nearly non-existent. The regime does not release economic figures or defense budgets, and consequently the Burmese people have little idea of the nature of the government that has ruled the country for decades. This is particularly disheartening given the good reputation Burma has in its past for support of press freedom.

Myanmar Times and the junta’s attempt to polish its image

Despite these barriers, the Myanmar Times, edited by Australian Ross Dunkley, was launched in Rangoon in 2000.This new publication professes to be Burma's first truly independent newspaper. Most observers consider this claim specious since the publisher is known to have close ties to the junta's dreaded Military Intelligence Services (MIS).

In fact, the launch of the newspaper was the brainchild of high-ranking military intelligence officials and the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), which have been desperate to whitewash Burma's pariah status.

What this newspaper represents is the latest attempt in a public relations campaign aimed at giving Burma's notoriously xenophobic regime a more "foreigner-friendly" image. The Burmese regime includes the Myanmar Times on its Web site. With its foreign editor, attractive layout, and polished English, the Myanmar Times is a symbol for the international community to show that Burma is a "normal" country fit for foreign investment.

The paper has also begun to publish a Burmese-language version, designed to convince a domestic audience that things are not really as bad as they seem. But Burmese readers familiar with the English-language version have already dismissed the Myanmar Times as slick propaganda. Local journalists dislike Myanmar Times, too. Late last year, Ross Dunkley found himself in hot water after he criticized the ability and style of journalists in Burma. Angry local journalists strongly responded by writing several articles. Finally, the Australian editor backed down, as he and his friends in the high place feared an unnecessary controversy.

There is no doubt that the paper enjoys special privileges local journalists do not. For instance, the arrest of Ne Win's family was covered in the Myanmar Times. The reporting of that event, however, did not venture beyond the official government version.

A headline on the front page of an issue that came out this July read: “Economic growth put at 10.5%”, citing official figures and speeches. Most economists would consider this a farcical figure.

This "VIP newspaper" has also been allowed to publish some sensitive news, such as the secret talks between the SPDC and opposition party led by Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as the visits of the UN special envoy and human rights investigators. But only the positive side of the story can be published; news critical of the government is still censored. Some journalists in Rangoon said Myanmar Times has “more rights than us.”

Even at the Myanmar Times, Burmese reporters are not allowed to write editorials or commentary pieces. They can write about traditional cuisine and culture. But issues such as health, which can be highly sensitive as it reflects badly on the regime's total neglect of the country's health-care system, are among the many areas that Burmese reporters must avoid writing about.

Like most issues in Burma, the growing HIV/AIDS crisis has been highly politicized. The state-run press typically responds to criticism of the junta's handling of the crisis by denying that it even exists, an approach similar to that of the Burmese government, which is also in denial about the country’s AIDS situation. Health experts warn that Burma is facing an AIDS time bomb, but there is insufficient information available to confirm this prediction. Burma's health ministry puts the number of HIV-positive people at only 40,000, but last year UN/AIDS estimated that more than half million people in Burma are HIV-positive, potentially leading to a full-blown AIDS epidemic.

Though more HIV/AIDS information and educational materials are gradually becoming available and stories are now being published in the state-run press, Burma's health workers say such an effort is outdated and insufficient to tackle the problem. They also point out that by heavily censoring AIDS news and failing to utilize the mass media as a weapon to fight against the disease will result in many more people becoming infected with HIV.

The Myanmar Times has taken a different approach: It does not avoid coverage of the known facts but focuses its reporting on "positive" stories, such as the charitable work of junta-connected businessmen. It also publishes the health minister’s verbal assaults on the Western and regional media for their "negative" reports on HIV/AIDS in Burma.

What drives Ross Dunkley to take the modest chances that he has in airing some of the junta’s dirty laundry? Obviously, Dunkley wants to do business. While local journals and magazines face heavy-handed censorship, the colorful Myanmar Times can make a handsome profit by publishing some sensitive news.

However, at a panel discussion recently held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, the Australian editor, who is the first foreigner to gain a foothold in the Burmese publishing industry in over forty years, said he actively promotes press freedom in Burma. Dunkley said that the ambition of his paper is to discover the fine line of censorship in Burma, and to "creep up on it every week relentlessly."

While he is proudly boosting Myanmar Times’s image and informing “positive development” in Burma local journalists complained increasingly heavy-handed censorship practiced by PSB officials.

So does the Myanmar Times represent a great leap forward, then? Perhaps, but few people in Burma believe that Dunkley is really pushing the envelop.

Some Burmese staff writers at Myanmar Times confided that they wanted to cover hard stories, but they were not allowed to do so. They also complained that local journalists see that most of its news represents the views of the junta. They say, “There is much more, but Myanmar Times is not telling it.”

What about interviewing Aung San Suu Kyi? Ross Dunkley said that he would try to interview her. But local editors said that Dunkley would need a green light from the regime first.

Rumors of a Dark Age and King Mindon’s legacy

The public dissemination of information through mass publications became a fact of life during the early years of British colonial rule in Lower Burma. Maulmain Chronicle, an English-language weekly, became Burma's first newspaper in 1838. King Mindon, who continued to rule in Upper Burma despite the colonial presence, was impressed with the newspapers that reached him from lower Burma and India. The King even invited some newspaper editors to speak with him about his desire to publish a newspaper. In March 1875, Yadanabon-Nay-Pyi-Daw or the Mandalay Gazette, newspaper was published.

King Mindon also introduced a new press law, which consisted of 17 articles. Scholars and historians have noted this as one of Southeast Asia's first indigenous press-freedom laws.

In part, his law read: "If I do wrong, write about me. If the queens do wrong, write about them. If my sons and my daughters do wrong, write about them. If the judges and mayors do wrong, write about them. No one shall take action against the journals for writing the truth. They shall go in and out of the palace freely."

Yadanabon-Nay-Pyi-Daw did not last long before the British invaded Upper Burma in 1885.

But what if Yadanabon-Nay-Pyi-Daw had still been informing the public and could have told them about British troops coming into Burma? Even a few days before the invasion, people in Mandalay had little idea of what was going to happen to their country. It was not until the British gunboats finally arrived at Gawwain jetty that rumors became reality and Burma was colonized for several decades. If Yadanabon-Nay-Pyi-Daw had still been publishing, history could have been different.

In the 21st century, information and education are the engines that empower individuals and countries. But inside Burma, as in the time of the British invasion in 1885, Burmese people are still being kept in the dark.