COMMENTARY
Future of Exiled Burmese Media
By AUNG ZAW Wednesday, March 14, 2012

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. 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 DVBs 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.

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