While last week I wrote about media freedom inside Burma, this article focuses on the existence of non-profit exiled media and the new challenges it faces.
As Burma is going through a period of transition, many in the media sector and donor community have questioned the existence of the Burmese media in exile.
Over the last few months, several Burmese journalists who have long been denied entry to Burma have been granted visas. They include reporters for Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), India-based Mizzima and Thailand-based The Irrawaddy.
|Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine. He can be reached at [email protected].|
Many senior editors and journalists I spoke to during my visit to Burma in February valued our continued role and said openly that the exiled media must keep the ball rolling. Respected Burmese editors such as Ludu Sein Win, Maung Wun Tha and Thiha Saw told me that there was a continued need for reporting and maintaining a critical viewpoint on Burma from outside.
I asked why? They simply answered that Burma is not free yet and the censorship board is still active—moreover, Burmese media both inside and outside the country compliment each other.
Thiha Saw, chief editor of Burma-based news weekly Open New recently told Time magazine, “We need the Burmese exiled media to tell the truth and print the stories that journals inside Burma cannot.”
My colleagues in the media sector say some donors who are pushing the exiled media to move inside are acting prematurely.
“They are killing a much needed critical voice,” thundered Sein Win. “It is not time yet [to move in] but you should come and visit as much as you can and do reporting here,” he advised.
One prominent editor, who asked to remain anonymous due to his close connections with the donor community in Burma and Bangkok, bluntly told me in Rangoon, “Some naïve donors just follow hot money and where the money goes—they just don’t have a sense of direction.”
Inside Burma, as I mentioned in my previous article, the censorship board is still active and the practice of self-censorship is widespread. A control mentality and draconian laws remain active and many sensitive and controversial stories can only be covered by media outlets operating abroad. The day when these stories can be covered freely inside will come, but it will take time.
For instance, news of corruption cases concerning six ministries was first broken in the exiled media and broadcast on the BBC (Burmese Service), but local journal The Voice Weekly published a similar story and is now facing a lawsuit.
That Burma still faces serious restrictions on free speech was demonstrated only this week when Aung San Suu Kyi's televised campaign address had a paragraph criticising the military cut out by the censorship board.
The lingering and controversial Myitsone hydropower dam issue still cannot be reported, let alone what is really going on in ethnic minority areas. Several media outlets, including The Irrawaddy and members of the international press, have made excellent reports regarding ongoing fighting in Kachin State, but reporters visited the conflict zone via China.
Burma's small and wary exiled ethnic media groups based along its borders will continue their mission in spite of uncertainty regarding funding and wavering commitment from donors. Their focus will be on ethnic regions—many Rangoon-based publications have little access to these areas or simply do not report ethnic issues in any depth.
It remains safer to operate from abroad as readers inside can have access to our online news—internet readership inside Burma is likely to increase in the near future—and we can publish stories both government and opposition and rebel groups without going through the censorship board. These include hard-hitting editorials with an uncompromising stance and investigative reports on a diverse range of issues.
There is no doubt that our journalistic integrity would be compromised if we had to go through the Burmese censorship board.