RANGOON, Burma – Toe Zaw Latt needs a new press ID. He did not change jobs and there is no typographical error in his name. He whips up his new business card and points out the difference between his organisation’s name on it and his frayed ID: “Democratic Voice of Burma, now DVB.”
[This is a sidebar story to the main article: Internet: A New Tool to Change Old Laws]
The switch from four words to three letters seems minor. But it reflects significant changes for Burma’s exiled journalists who made their way home. After decades of working in Chiang Mai, Thailand or India, they are resettling in a country whose fragile political and economic transition is deeply affecting their own.
In his company’s one-year-old office in Burma’s largest city Rangoon, DVB bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt tells the story of his calling card. “We’ve been compromising especially with the Ministry of Information,” he says. “In the Constitution, the country is already called Myanmar. We agreed we will not spell it out but keep DVB Multimedia Group. For others, it’s not so important, but it’s been our brand name for 21 years.”
Compromise has been inevitable for Burma’s returning exiled media who had established a formidable reputation for their independent reporting on the then military junta’s abuses.
Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of the English Edition of the Irrawaddy, also had to shift from using Burma to Myanmar in the monthly magazine that any newsboy here now sells without fear of a 20-year jail sentence. But Kyaw Zwa Moe says the concessions are minimal.
“I think here you are supposed to be more critical than ever,” he says. “In the past, Burma had black and white, no other colours. If something bad happens, that was because of the government and that’s it.”
“Now, for example, the monkhood,” he says while flipping the issue with the cover story “A Radically Different Dhamma”. “We have to be more critical of our own people, their behavior, and mentality as well.”
The man who read smuggled copies of Time and Newsweek in prison until the pages were worn out says he prefers reporting on ethnic and religious conflicts than figuring out how to make money. Yet he has no choice but to start thinking like a businessman as well, now that international donors that used to support ventures like Irrawaddy are cutting funding as they set up their own offices and development projects in Rangoon.
It is a change the former non-profit organisations are adjusting to, albeit uncomfortably.
Toe Zaw Latt, who was in the jungle after the bloody 1988 uprising, says he is now facing a different kind of battle.
“We have to find some money, expand our programmes to entertainment, some movies,” he says. “DVB is popular because of our reporting. At the same time, we can’t find lots of money from news.”
DVB and the Irrawaddy entered the local market at a time when the number of private daily newspapers in circulation expanded from zero to 12 following the abolition of censorship. The competition is also stiff in broadcast where state-owned or linked companies dominate airwaves and access to the President’s office.
Calling DVB’s business model a hybrid, Toe Zaw Latt says the TV and radio broadcaster sells its content to FM stations and daily newspapers to augment donor money. He says selling does not mean selling out.
He explains why DVB trained the staff of the state-owned MRTV last year, a decision some of its reporters protested against. “Is there anything DVB doesn’t report?” he points out. “DVB is full of land-grabbing stories, unfair economic stories, the clashes. News is news as before but at the same time, we engage. The state wants to change. Do you want to be part of change or stay away from change?”
But he concedes that some things did change in news reporting. “There is no new news,” he says. “In the past, it is with the source and connections, very secret, very closed country. Now something happens, everybody knows. It’s as if ‘exclusive’ disappeared in this country.”
Toe Zaw Latt has reason to long for the days of the exclusive. During the 2007 Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis in 2008, DVB’s underground video journalists provided the world a rare look into the junta’s brutality.
More adept with this global audience, Kyaw Zwa Moe says trying to sell the English magazine in Burma remains a challenge. Irrawaddy had to lay off staff in July. Despite his scepticism, he has relented on accepting ads and money from military cronies.
“You have to compromise with this political reality,” he says. “For us, if our editorial policy is not to be interfered by any investors or donors or advertisers, I think that is okay. Like in the past, sometimes donors came and talked to us, ‘You shouldn’t report this and that.’ We never accepted it.”
Beyond print, Kyaw Zwa Moe sees potential online. The Irrawaddy website boasts of over 80 millions hits monthly, with readers from inside Burma tripling since 2012. Irrawaddy is developing apps for smartphones. The “likes” on the Facebook page of its English version, now nearly 60,000, exceed its circulation of 7,000.
With a staff of just 40 people, the Irrawaddy has not yet maximised social media. “We have to do it ourselves,” says Kyaw Zwa Moe. “The reporters – sometimes I even – upload the pictures. We have one webmaster for the English site. He is quite busy uploading the story on the website and we say, ‘Hey, we need the story on Facebook too. Why don’t you upload there?’ We don’t really have the human resources here.”
DVB’s reporters and producers also multitask. They run a programme called “Talk 2 DVB” using messages sent via GChat. DVB just started a program in August called DVB Debate, an interactive show aiming to promote an “agree to disagree” culture in a country generals ran for 50 years. Topics range from politics to the hazards of chewing Burma’s favorite betel nut.
“Our focus changed,” says Toe Zaw Latt. “If you have good Internet connection, you don’t need a television. In Japan only few people watch TV. It is smartphone or multimedia so we focus the development of these particular communication areas.”
He says making money online is still a question because of low connectivity and the absence of electronic banking in Burma.
The bigger question though is what happens after 2015. Both DVB and Irrawaddy are keeping their Chiang Mai bureaus at least until then as they navigate Burma’s shifting political terrain.
In December, the country will host the Southeast Asian games and chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 2014. This early, power players including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi are preparing for the 2015 election by starting to review the Constitution, which bars The Lady from being president and guarantees military representation in parliament.
Despite the uncertainty, Kyaw Zwa Moe says Irrawaddy is here to stay. “Everyone from the government side, the opposition side has to cultivate our rights,” he says. “That is very important for all of us. The Irrawaddy will flow with the current of the political reform in the coming years.”
Like their country, the former exiled journalists are grappling with their own identity crisis.
“Are we local?” asks Toe Zaw Latt. “We do Burmese news. Not quite. Are we exiled? Not quite. Are we legal? Seemingly legal. There are a lot of things we have to clarify at the moment.”
“It is a process,” he says. “It is just the beginning of the beginning.”
[This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Ayee Macaraig, a multimedia reporter for the Manila-based Rappler.com, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published on www.rappler.com in September 2013.]