In time with the 5th Media Development Conference in Yangon, we interview veteran journalist Zin Linn about the situation of the country’s ethnic media. The two-day conference theme of ‘Inclusive Independent Media in a New Democracy’, has made gender and ethnicity as a cross-cutting theme.
In 1962, when General Ne Win siezed the power, all the democratic institutions were banned; and, all private newspapers were nationalized and put under the control of the military regime. The regime installed the notorious Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (PSRD) to screen and censor every news written for the newspapers. This is how Burma lost its press freedom in both ethnic areas and capital.
Until the 1988 people’s uprising there was no genuine ethnic media in the country. However, the ideas of liberty, justice and equality were revived to take forward the ideals of the 1947 Panglong agreement as a framework for governing the country. After 1990, after the military junta refused to recognize election results, the spirit of revolution in every ethnic area was again rising, leading to the establishment of ethnic media publications.Myanmar’s ethnic media entered a new phase with the transition from a tightly regulated media, with the abolition of pre-publication censorship in 2013. The gradual return of a freer environment in the country allowed the return of exiled media into the country. Prior to this, ethnic media operated alongside alternative, prodemocracy media from outside the country because of severe registration and publication restrictions by the successive military regimes.
SEAPA: In your view, what are the key developments in the ethnic media landscape in the past 5 years?
U Zin Linn: Before 2010, ethnic media were not professional, as most of them are based on their respective ethnic revolutions. Their articles are one way or another pushing for their ethnic liberation and mostly denouncing human rights abuses by the military junta in ethnic areas. So until this point, the regime accused ethnic media outlets of being lobbyists for the rebels. But, after 2010, ethnic media received support from international media development organizations for capacity building and news writing training. Since then, they started reforming to become professional media.
In 2012, the semi-civilian government under President Thein Sein, invited opposition groups including ethnic media to continue their journalistic work inside the country. So, Burma News International (BNI) took this opportunity and convened its first ethnic media conference in Mawlamyine, Mon State, with the inclusive participation of government, state-media, private media, ethnic media, and other local stakeholders. In that conference, the deputy minister of information (MOI) made a key-note speech and the Mon State chief minister made the opening speech. As of 2016, BNI has organized four ethnic media conferences, with the last one held in Mrauk Oo in Rakhine State. These conferences drew more attention from various stakeholders towards the ethnic media issues.
SEAPA: How do you rate the quality of ethnic media today?
U Zin Linn: One of the first orders of the day during the transition was to prepare ethnic journalists to be professional to be able to compete with local media. There were consecutive trainings under the umbrella of BNI such as basic journalism, code of ethics, newsroom trainings, editorial trainings, peace reporting, election reporting, conflict reporting, and journalist safety trainings. There is a BNI news quality assessment team that monitors and edits articles to be in line with journalism ethics. By doing so, their news became balanced with multiple news sources. Now, many of them have the quality to compete with the private and state media.
The state and private media have no reliable news sources in the ethnic areas especially those with on-going conflict. That’s why, the state and private media cannot give information about armed-conflicts, drugs trafficking, human trafficking, poppy growing, etc. For such news, BNI and ethnic media outlets have advantages than Yangon-based. Their reporting quality is developing to be reliable news outlets. Now, other news agencies offer to buy their news products.
SEAPA: What are the risks and challenges while reporting in ethnic including access to information in those area?
U Zin Linn: Journalists or reporters from ethnic media outlets require recognition officially .
This means they do not have official ‘press cards” that can better guarantee the performance of their jobs as well as enhance safety. This is especially necessary in ethnic areas of the country which are still unstable due to ongoing civil war.
Ethnic journalists have to cover the conflict stories. They also need to meet with spokesperson or news sources from the ethnic armed organizations. Unfortunately, for this they can be arrested under the penal code. The biggest challenge for ethnic journalists is to be secure while traveling in conflict zones.
Ethnic media outlets face difficulty in keeping experienced reporters in their employ because of uncompetitive salaries.
In the field, the idea of coverage of “breaking news” is difficult to maintain since ethnic media outlets cannot afford to use effective communication tools. In addition, most ethnic villages are far away from access to information. Villagers do not even dare speak to journalists. Villagers in remote areas do not want to give their opinion or information as they think it might be harmful.
SEAPA: What are your suggestions to sustain the genuine development of ethnic voices and their media?
U Zin Linn: To sustain ethnic media development, it is still essential receive adequate assistance from the government as well as international donors. The parliaments at the State and Union levels must protect the ethnic media outlets by making necessary laws in order to help their survival. The role of the ethnic media are vital because they are the bridges between government and the ethnic rebels. Ethnic media can help both parties to understand each other. As NLD Government is carrying out its national reconciliation policy, it cannot gain much ground without having help from ethnic media who can go between the key stakeholders.
Therefore to achieve genuine peace, it is very important to strengthen the role of the ethnic media which is also the voice of the voiceless ethnic populations.
Ethnic media outlets have no commercial or marketing skills to compete with the state media and private media. So they cannot survive on advertisement incomes. Even though they have their own audience in their respective areas, they also cannot reach these due to expensive communication expenses.
Printed ethnic journals also find it difficult to survive because of the large proportion of the illiterate population in ethnic villages. Ethnic peoples want to listen community-radio or to watch TV because they cannot read or write. Currently ethnic media are waiting for government assistance to run their respective community radio. Furthermore there is still the challenge of getting trained staff and skilled broadcast journalists. So there are still many more challenges for ethnic media development.
Zin Linn is the editorial quality consultant of Burma News International (BNI) since 2013. Currently, he writes opinions and commentaries for local language weekly journals, including D-Wave, the First Weekly, and the People’s Age. Since 2002, he has been contributing opinions and commentaries on press freedom, ethnic conflicts, peace process, drug issues in English Language on Asian Correspondent, Asia Tribune, Inter-press Service (IPS), Myanmar Freedom daily newspaper, Irrawaddy, and Mizzima.
Burma News International (BNI), a SEAPA member, is a coalition of thirteen independent Burma media/news organizations. They are Mizzima News, Narinjara News, Kaladan Press, Karen Information Center, Khonumthung News, Network Media Group, Independent Mon News Agency, Shan Herald Agency for News, Phop Htaw News, Than Lwin Times, Kantarawaddy Times, Kachin News Group and Chin World news media.
*Interviewed on 5 November 2016.