One senior official I met in Burma told me openly, “We will lose face if we have to censor your publication … Likewise you will lose your integrity.”
It would be sad to see the exiled media’s coverage and mission undermined due to the shifting priorities of donors. The Financial Times
reported a few weeks ago that donor groups had already shifted funding priorities even as Burma’s nominally civilian government began to tentatively rolls out ambitious reforms. Among The Irrawaddy’s
key donors, at least two European governments have withdrawn funding.
“Some European countries, including Denmark and Norway, have increased spending on NGOs within Myanmar at the expense of exile groups,” reported The Financial Times. “Many donors have criticized the 'dependence mentality' among exiles and are tightening criteria for funding, said a UK aid official.”
Funding will be tight. Many in the media sector predict that the New York-based Open Society Institute and Washington DC-based National Endowment for Democracy plus some European donors will continue to support media outside, but many will soon quit as they move inside.
The Financial Times writes: “The Irrawaddy’s demise signifies the premature end of exile groups that have played a valuable role with their critical eye and well-placed sources inside the country.” one of my colleagues who saw the report sent me a message saying it felt like she was “reading the news of a funeral.” No, not yet.
We will not give in easily although we predict and prepare for a tough time ahead. As long as the authorities keeps issuing visas for journalists to enter Burma we have to keep going inside and doing our job of reporting the facts while engaging with the government.
A colleague who works for a prominent think-tank group inside Burma told me this week: “It’s better that you and media groups outside often come back here because the government knows you won’t tone down and compromise your stance—they know they have to be careful what they do and say.”
Exiled groups can play a watchdog role in collaboration with local media groups. They can take part in drafting media law, increasing cooperation between inside and outside media, building solidarity and forming new and independent press associations inside Burma. Sharing these experiences and skills will increase the pressure on officials to lift censorship restrictions.
Our message to the authorities must be loud and clear that we cannot live in the shadow of censorship with threats and intimidation, and thus we must keep working to have legislation in place which protects our fellow journalists inside Burma.
Moreover, exiled groups need to open up more dialogue to cooperate among themselves—to present a unified voice to donors and make everyone, including partners who are making key decisions, held accountable.
With international businesses excited to go inside Burma and aid donors in a similar rush, it is important to play a critical role informing local people about the pros and cons of engagement. These include the perils of the aid system, accountability, transparency, corruption and many more issues that must be covered through collaboration between media inside and out.
Of course, we can also apply for publishing or broadcasting licenses (broadcasting licenses are still very unlikely) and explore the possibility of opening offices and have government-sanctioned reporters inside Burma with press cards. These are small steps but many remain doubtful that officials are ready to accept our staff working freely inside.
However, it is not our mission to enter a publishing environment that will undermine what we have been doing for the last 20 years—our mission is to go back to Burma once Burma is free. Without freedom, you can do little inside and we are not prepared to be a lapdog.
According to AFP, many reporters working for exiled media groups inside Burma still do not feel safe to reveal this fact. In the case of DVB, the first step is “legalizing DVB’s operation in the country” and preventing further arrests, according to its Deputy Director Khin Maung Win. The government is closely linked to the previous military rulers who “treated DVB as the enemy,” he said.
As we all go though this tough period of transition we have to be strategic and creative.
Khuensai Jaiyen, editor of the Shan Herald News Agency, a newspaper reporting on Burma’s Shan minority, told Time online recently that he is adopting a “one foot in, one foot out” strategy. “It’s not the time to put all the eggs in the basket,” he said.
Timing is important—it is likely that the “one foot in, one foot out” approach will continue until 2015 when Burma holds its second general election.