Karen News looks to the future back in Burma

Ethnic Karen news outlet Karen Information Center (KIC) held a strategic planning workshop last month, aiming to take the organization toward becoming a sustainable media outfit in Burma.

The first such workshop for KIC, the activity is more of a group brain storming. Two ethnic Karen trainers facilitated the three-day discussion on 20-22 August among five KIC management-level staff in the Thai-Burma border town, Mae Sot.

“Since KIC was conceived in 1997, we ran our news agency in response to circumstances. We never had a chance to conduct strategic planning for our news room; so we encounter a lot of difficulties and challenges”, said Nan Paw Gay, director of Karen News. “We are rather like a community and volunteer-based news organization.”

With dedication and passion, five Karen journalists agreed on achievable polices and strategies that will steer their organization in the context of Burma’s expanding media space.

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An ethnic news outlet

KIC served as news portal for the ethnic Karen, and a Karen-affairs news service for audiences beyond the Karen State. Karen news has been based in Thai-Burma border for the past 17 years, with 18 ethnic Karen journalists.

Reporting from Karen communities – whether in conflict areas within Karen state or in refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border – KIC journalists have the advantages of being from the communities. This gives them an innate in-depth knowledge and understanding of the issues and context that Karen communities face.

Nan Paw Gay interviewing refugees at a camp in near the Thai-Burma border.

Nan Paw Gay interviewing refugees at a camp in near the Thai-Burma border.

Karen state has been in a state of civil war for more than half a century, with more than 3,600 villages destroyed and abandoned, and as many as 500,000 ethnic Karen population still displaced. Today, it remains a conflict area as ethnic leaders are in the middle of negotiating a nationwide peace agreement with the government.

In conjunction with easing general restrictions on the media, the present government lifted restrictions on ethnic-language newspapers in December 2012. Subsequently, four monthly and bi-weekly ethnic-language journals are now openly published in the Chin, Mon, Karen and Kaya States.

Currently, Karen News publishes monthly in Karen and Burmese language, and is distributed across the nation, especially to areas where Karen populations are concentrated.

Karen News also runs online news websites in the Karen, Burmese and English languages. An online radio program in Sakaw Karen dialect called Radio Karen is broadcast once a week.

Meanwhile, a mobile video news program has recently been launched, but with limited programming due to financial and human resources restraints.

With an ongoing, yet at precarious, ceasefire between the government and ethnic armed groups, Karen News formally registered as a media outlet in Burma, but is still mainly operating from the Thai-Burma border.

Careful to return

Nan Paw Gay, who is an ethnic Poe Karen woman and  has been working in Karen News for 14 years, said our decision to move our entire operations inside Burma will depend mainly on the unfolding political situation, particularly whether the peace process moves forward or not.

She added that “we have to very carefully watch the government’s policing of media and press freedom. If indications are positive, this would open a chance for us to move back to Karen State, and operate from there.”

For now, the freer media space provides an opportunity to serve the Karen population, especially to help preserve indigenous language and culture.

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Saw Tun Lin

“Logistical challenges such as collecting news and distribution our papers remain daunting as our Karen people live in remote areas” said Saw Tun Lin, a senior reporter who also works as distribution manager of Karen News.

In addition, their existence as a Karen news agency is barely noticed among the news providers in the country. “We therefore have to take extra effort to venture out in order to gain access to news,” added Saw Tun Lin.

Despite undergoing sweeping media reforms, an uncertain outlook also awaits ethnic media groups because of limited audiences in ethnic areas. Beyond general media freedom, developing the market provides added pressure to the Karen News and other ethnic news outlets.

“We are also concerned of ‘buy-out’ by crony businesses and our identities unduly ‘politicized’ by certain parties.

“To sustain Karen News as independent media in Burma, we need sounding financial management system and feasible business model. Otherwise, we won’t be able to survive as independent Karen news for long”, said Saw Tun Lin.

The workshop was funded through the Ethnic Media Transition Fund, a joint undertaking by SEAPA and Burma News International, through a European Union funding.