Mission: To Tell the Truth
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019
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Mission: To Tell the Truth


By AUNG ZAW MARCH, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.3


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Burma’s exiled media took center stage during the September uprising. Now they must not rest on their laurels

If the Burmese people are ready for change, then we must ask whether the exiled Burmese media is ready for change. The answer, I believe, should be a resounding “Yes!”

Burma enjoyed perhaps the liveliest free press in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 60s. Burma’s first constitution in 1947 guaranteed citizens the right to express their opinions and convictions.

Unfortunately, the freedoms of expression and media were short-lived in Burma.

The first assault on journalism came soon after the military coup in 1962. Press freedom gradually disintegrated thereafter, truncated by Gen Ne Win’s socialist regime.

Newspapers were nationalized and many foreign news agencies were asked to pack their bags. Journalists and editors found themselves in prison.

During the 1980s, all forms of public expression and publications had to pass through Burma’s notorious censorhip board, now known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, even though Burma’s second constitution, drawn up in 1974, guaranteed freedom of expression.

That freedom, like all others, was subject to the capricious whims and draconian dogma of the “Burmese Way to Socialism.”

In 1988, Burmese citizens took to the streets calling for Ne Win’s resignation and an end to one-party rule.

For a brief period the people of Burma witnessed a revival of press freedom—hundreds of pro-democracy bulletins, newspapers and pamphlets were published without going through the censorship board.

Even Burma’s state-owned newspapers surprisingly departed from the rose-tinted official line and an objective reporting style suddenly emerged. Alas, it was also short-lived.

The second major attack on press freedom came shortly after the bloody coup on September 18, 1988. Reporters and editors around the country endured another dark era, facing arrest, torture and lengthy imprisonments. “Burma is an enemy of the press,” said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists in 2005.

Over the past 20 years, a new group of journalists and reporters has emerged—the exiles. Burmese journalists who were formerly political activists, ex-political prisoners from 1988, and those affiliated with the pro-democracy uprisings established news agencies in Burma’s neighboring countries, such as India and Thailand. The Irrawaddy itself, founded in 1993, was a result of this defiant era.

Several Burmese journalists joined the BBC, VOA and Radio Free Asia (Burmese services); the Democratic Voice of Burma was set up by exiled Burmese in Norway.

These Burmese media groups have come of age and have proven themselves powerful in shaping public opinion and informing an international audience.

During the uprising in September 2007, reporters based in Burma and “citizen reporters” highlighted the monk-led uprising and exposed the brutality of the regime; but the exiled media groups played a crucial role, too.

Chinese-made radios quickly sold out in Burma as news-hungry people rushed to buy them and listen to news from foreign services. Satellite dishes were installed to receive TV broadcasts from abroad.

Burma’s exiled media—often described by the international press as the “dissident underground media” or the “opposition media”—dutifully disseminated all the news and images they received from Burma. Without them, it would have been very difficult to spread the news of the brutal crackdown in Burma to the global media.

Significantly, the exiled media groups not only helped to shape public opinion, but offered analysis to an international audience: government officials, policymakers, UN agencies, NGOs, think tanks and international publications. They raised awareness and reached out to a global audience.

The attention Burma received was massive. Moreover, inside and outside Burma, media professionals found ways to cooperate and narrow gaps or mistrust.

Most of the exiled Burmese media have shown professional integrity, skill and talent.

But there is a boundary line. Exiled media have to be guarded and not fall into a trap of being used by special interest groups.

During the uprising, images of the body of a monk floating in a river and a man killed by a 10-wheel truck appeared on the Internet, creating anger and grief among Burmese and foreigners alike in the belief that the military had carried out these executions.

However, The Irrawaddy could not confirm the origin of these pictures and some veteran journalists claimed the two photographs were, in fact, unrelated to the uprising. In the end, we did not publish the pictures.



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