Burma Needs a Healthy Media

Last week, in response to a proposal from a lawmaker to draft a new law to guarantee media freedom in Burma, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan warned that such a law could be more trouble than it was worth. Citing the ancient Buddhist fable of Saddan, the elephant king whose queen was bitten by red ants attracted by flowers that he had given her, he suggested that the “gift” of a free media could bring more disadvantages to the country than advantages.

Kyaw Hsan's remarks, made at a time when Burma's military-dominated government is trying to encourage exiles to return to the country to play a role in its supposed transition to democracy, have renewed doubts about the seriousness of recent “reforms.” As one of those in the country's exiled media community who have been invited to go back, Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw spoke to senior reporter Aye Chan Myate about the role of the media in restoring democracy in Burma, cooperation between domestic and exiled media agencies, and whether The Irrawaddy has any plans to return to Burma and base itself there.

Question: What do you think of Kyaw Hsan's speech in Parliament last week?

Answer: Instead of talking about an elephant king, he should have said something about King Mindon, the penultimate monarch of Burma. In 1875, the Yadanabon Naypyidaw newspaper was established with his blessings. He also introduced Burma's first ever press law. In that 17-article law, he famously declared: “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.” It was a very modern, thoughtful law for that time, and it was Burma’s first indigenous press freedom law.

Q: What do you think of the current media situation inside Burma and the role of the domestic press?

A: I think the government censorship board should no longer exist. We can proudly say that in the 1950s and 60s, our country had the freest press in Southeast Asia. Back then, journalists could raise really critical questions at press conferences organized by the prime minister and other ministers. They could also report about those conferences. However, this changed under the late dictator Gen Ne Win, and became worse under the military regime that succeeded him. Those who revealed the truth were thrown in jail, where many still languish. I think the government must release them and ensure that Burma enjoys complete freedom of the press.

Even President Thein Sein has spoken of the importance of the fourth pillar, the media. Our country needs freedom of the press in order to achieve democracy. The media is the eyes and ears of a country. Let us do our work freely!

Q: What can be done to help domestic and exiled media groups cooperate?

A: I think they already cooperate in many ways. In recent years, the gap between them has become narrower, as mistrust has decreased and understanding increased. People living inside the country now understand more about the role of exiles, and we exiles have become more aware of their role. We are like two sides of the same coin. We have to report and reveal what they cannot, so we have become partners.

On the other hand, some journalists inside Burma still toe the government line. But there are many who respect the truth and believe in an independent media, and they need all the assistance they can get, from both inside and outside.

Overall, the situation of the domestic media is encouraging, despite the government's continuing restrictions. Recently, however, we have heard that people in Burma can now access our Irrawaddy website without having to use a proxy server. This is a welcome sign, if in fact it is a reflection of government policy.

Q: Do you think there is still a need for the exiled media?

A: I think the exiled media still plays an important role. Many people in Burma—farmers, workers, students, opposition members and ordinary citizens—listen everyday to the Burmese-language services of Radio Free Asia, the British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America. They also watch television channels like the Democratic Voice of Burma and visit websites and blogs run by The Irrawaddy and other exiled media groups. This indicate that the exiled media still plays a large and broad role inside Burma.

International organizations should provide as much assistance as possible to journalists inside the country and in exile who are dedicated to genuine press freedom. What they shouldn't do is support those who are just following the government's policies, who hide the truth, and media groups created by businessmen close to the government. The international community has choose between making friends with the government's mouthpieces or helping those who fight for genuine freedom of the press.

There are still many issues that the domestic media cannot report on—for instance, the construction of the Myitsone dam in northern Kachin State, the civil war in ethnic regions, human rights violations, child soldiers, the cozy relations between powerful businessmen and top generals, and international issues such as Burma’s military ties to North Korea and its relations with China, Asean and the West.

These issues are very important, and can only be addressed by journalists outside of the country. I don't think the fact that the local media has recently been permitted to publish photos of Aung San Suu Kyi is a useful measure of the degree of press freedom in Burma, as some people seem to think.

Real journalism in Burma is still in its infancy, thanks to decades of military repression. Even before stories are sent to the censorship board, writers and publishers must exercise heavy self-censorship. But domestic journalists are doing their best under the circumstances. The fact that so many have landed in prisons shows that there are still courageous reporters in Burma.

Q: So what future role do you see for the exiled media?

A: Eventually, the exiled media will have to go back inside Burma. They are in exile now only because they are still unable to operate freely inside the country.

In the meantime, they must continue their role in exile. Imagine if people inside Burma woke up tomorrow and there was no independent exiled press or radio stations like VOA or BBC—no Burmese journalists to get information out and keep tabs on the government and military, no Burmese outlet and filter for people who want to contact outside journalists. There would be a huge void that would severely damage efforts to hold the regime accountable, and that would be a huge setback for the pro-democracy movement.

Q: President Thein Sein has invited exiles to return home, and some have already done so. Under what conditions would The Irrawaddy be prepared to return?

A: We have been invited by journalist friends inside Burma to return and work for media development, organize media training and do other media-related work. We are now thinking about their offer. But how can we work for media development inside Burma when journalists are still under repression? We must be allowed to report freely. Exiled journalists are not going to go back just to end up in prison or under total control like chickens in a basket.

When we return, I don't think we can enter commercial business right away. We see ourselves as public servants who reveal and report the truth. In some countries, governments provide millions of dollars to independent media groups that work in the interests of citizens, sometimes by criticizing their governments. In a democratic society, we need checks and balances, and the media plays a big part in that system. There are also many private media agencies that can criticize the wrongdoings of their governments. We are learning from their experiences as well.

If the government continues to use the media to propagate its own position on every issue, and censors any reporting that is not in line with its position, there will be no real press freedom in Burma. Such practices must end. We have to think about how we can help to improve Burma's media with the knowledge we have acquired in exile. A healthy media is essential if we want to treat the country's ills and help it develop.

Speaking as an exiled journalist who has been reporting about Burma for almost 20 years, I would like to return to my country to meet people and report freely. Even if we cannot be based there, we still want to be allowed to go inside to collect news and conduct interviews with people, including the president, government officials and members of the opposition. We want to be permitted to report about our country more deeply than we can at present. We will go back for such an opportunity.

(Aung Zaw is founder and editor of The Irrawaddy and recipient of the 2010 Prince Claus Award for his active role in the fight for freedom of information and democracy.)