J-School in the Land of the Junta

Can Burma build a free media or will the government’s new soft-sell propaganda win out?

Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages
Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages

YANGON, Myanmar — The future of Burmese journalism is in a shopping mall. At least, that’s what the government hopes. Up the glass escalators of Yangon’s sparkling new Junction Square, past the ice cream parlors and kiosks offering cosmetics, jewelry and jeans, the Myanmar Media Development Center is tucked away on the third floor. Opened with great fanfare in July 2012, it is one of the few institutions training journalists in a country that until recently had very little use for them.

On a Friday afternoon in early February, I took a tour of the facility with Eberhard Sucker, its advisor and a former correspondent for Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which provides training and guidance. As Sucker energetically bounded between the windowless classrooms and surprisingly cutting-edge production studios, he introduced me to some of the 50 students in the center’s inaugural class, trendy twenty-somethings with elaborate K-pop hairdos and tattoos. The government is grooming these students, most of whom are from privileged families able to afford the $2,000 tuition, to be the next generation of media professionals in state-run broadcast outlets. Among other things, they’re learning how to storyboard documentaries and properly source news pieces, lessons that haven’t come easy. "For over 40 years, there was no journalism here. Newsgathering consisted of calling the ministry for guidance on how to report things. Changing the mindset is the biggest challenge," Sucker said.

That there might be a future at all for the government’s vast propaganda apparatus is surprising. Burma’s transformation since national elections in 2010 — which ushered in a nominally civilian government, led to a series of political reforms, and resulted in the release of hundreds of political prisoners — has been swift and far-reaching. Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in the media. After decades of mercilessly suppressing free speech, the Ministry of Information announced the end of pre-press censorship in August 2012. Independent publications have mushroomed, and even the exiled media organization Democratic Voice of Burma, long a thorn in the government’s side, has returned to the country (although not yet officially). In early April, privately run newspapers began publishing on a daily basis after receiving government permission, a watershed move celebrated by the country’s writers and editors (they could previously only publish on a weekly basis).

Given all of these changes, state-run media might feel like an anachronism, a relic of the country’s authoritarian past that would struggle to compete in the new dynamic landscape. Not so, says the Ministry of Information, which has grand plans to transform its former propaganda outlets into a trusted source of public information. "If we can provide quality news and information, we can win the trust," Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said by email from Naypyidaw, the capital.

Even taking the government at its word — and ignoring the possibility that it’s simply laying the groundwork for a "censorship light" system like in Russia — it’s a tall order. In addition to convincing the public that state-run outlets no longer toe the government line, the ministry must mold a new generation of journalists while ushering out an untold number of current employees whose skill sets are better suited to roles as bureaucrats than reporters and editors.

To jumpstart the process, the government has poured cash into sprucing up its stodgy old mouthpieces and outfitting them with the trappings of independent media. The English-language New Light of Myanmar, otherwise known as the "New Lies of Myanmar," announced in March that it is seeking a joint-venture partner to help fund a makeover, after it and two sister Burmese-language papers began printing in color and running advertisements in 2012. Meanwhile, the military launched its own English-language paper, Myawaddy, in January. On the broadcast side, the government teamed up with the Burmese privately held Forever Group in 2010 to launch the splashy MRTV4, which does entertainment and news.

The resulting changes in tone and presentation — from stilted and at times belligerent toward government opponents to something approaching the look and feel of real journalism — have been noticeable. But there is still a long way to go. While some state-run outlets have been running riskier op-eds, including about the need for democratic reform, and reports about fires and traffic accidents (surprisingly not covered under the junta) they have thus far ignored sensitive issues like the country’s ethnic tensions. In the days after violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the city of Meiktila claimed dozens of lives in March, the New Light focused instead on President Thein Sein’s trips to Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam. In addition, they rarely acknowledge the existence of the country’s most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a topic of endless fascination for the private press.

The public face of this push for change is Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut. A former lieutenant colonel, Ye Htut was part of delegations that visited Europe to observe how independent media functions in Western democracies. During these visits, "we clearly saw the danger of media monopoly and too much commercialization of media," Ye Htut told me. The answer for Burma, Ye Htut and his allies decided, would be a public-service model similar to the BBC and Scandinavia’s publicly funded broadcasters. In keeping with those examples, Ye Htut insists that the ministry wants no editorial control, and will supervise the operations of state-run outlets through a governing body.

Winning the trust of the public would appear to be the biggest challenge. Other than North Korea’s or Iran’s official press, it’s difficult to think of one less credible — and at times unintentionally comic — than Burma’s under the junta. An example from 2007, memorialized on YouTube, is typical. A stern-faced anchor from English-language MRTV-3 warns citizens not to take part in the ongoing Saffron Revolution — in which the junta brutally suppressed a monk-led national anti-government movement — as text flashes on the screen describing the BBC and VOA as "sky-full of liars." When state-run outlets weren’t threatening government opponents or disparaging Aung San Suu Kyi, they ran dull footage of junta officials visiting temples and inaugurating infrastructure projects, hardly the sort of content that would engender trust, much less build any sort of audience.

Yet a Gallup poll from 2012 tells a more complex story. Burmese trust official outlets only slightly less than the BBC and Radio Free Asia. In addition, 52 percent of respondents said they found official media to be more trustworthy at the time of the survey than six months before. Burmese sources I spoke to were astonished by these numbers. "I have great regard for Gallup, but in this case I can’t accept their findings or the conclusion they have drawn," said Pe Myint, a well-known author and journalist. "People may sometimes try to confirm what they have heard by checking with government announcements in state-owned newspapers, radio and TV. But m
ost of the people know that those are government propaganda outlets." Perhaps that is the point: as long as state-run media avoid reporting on sensitive topics, the audience can be expected to more or less trust their reporting on quotidian matters like presidential trips abroad and commodity prices. It’s also possible, of course, that a public with very little recent experience with a free media trusts state-controlled outlets because there’s never been an alternative.

Whatever the reasons for this relatively high level of trust, it bodes well for the transformation process, as the example of the former Soviet Union shows. Under communism, faith in the state-run media was also high. "Some people certainly doubted what they read and saw. But the majority felt that most programs were trustworthy, with a few exceptions," said Jeremy Druker, who as head of Transitions, a Prague-based non-profit media organization, has followed post-Soviet media for 20 years. For that reason, a surprisingly large number of former propaganda outlets have fared well since 1989.

In the Czech Republic, for instance, state-run television successfully transitioned into public-service broadcasting with barely a blip. Mladá fronta Dnes, the country’s former socialist youth daily, is now one of the most respected papers in the country, while Právo, which has its roots in Rudé právo, the former mouthpiece of the Czech Communist Party, is now independent and widely read. The picture gets mixed as you head farther east, where directors and high-level editorial staff tend to be the same people as under communism. According to Druker, the outlets that performed best acted quickly to establish new leadership and assert their editorial independence. "They earned credibility by getting rid of everyone," he said. Whether Burma can do the same — employees in state-run media will be none too eager to lose their jobs — remains to be seen. "They have some concerns," Ye Htut admitted, but "we are conducting orientation courses for them."

While changes in the print sphere have been fast-moving and laudable, the government is moving much more cautiously with broadcast. The reasons for this are obvious: few people outside of cities actually read newspapers and magazines. TV and radio is where the action — the audience, the influence and the money — is. That same Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Burmese get their news from radio (62 percent) and TV (45 percent), with print (15 percent) a distant fourth, behind friends and family. This is where Burma starts to look less like the Czech Republic and more like some of its Asian neighbors. In countries like Malaysia and Cambodia, which hold elections and don’t officially censor journalists, entrenched ruling parties control radio and TV through a combination of patronage and licensing. Print and online journalists are allowed to write more or less what they want, providing the window dressing of a free press while influential and heavily pro-government broadcast stations help keep the ruling parties in power.

Aye Chan Naing, head of the Democratic Voice of Burma, which produces radio and satellite broadcasts from Norway and Thailand, has experienced these restrictions firsthand. He approached the Ministry of Information in February 2012 about setting up official operations in the country, but a prohibitive and confusing licensing process has left DVB waiting on the sidelines. "They have told us to wait until the new broadcast law is passed in parliament. But while they’re saying this, they’re expanding all of their channels. They’re moving quickly," he said.

The private companies winning licenses and forming joint ventures with the government have strong political connections, which is sure to influence their content. The SkyNet satellite TV operator, which was launched by the Shwe Than Lwin company as a government joint venture in 2010, has pioneered live news broadcasts in Burma, and was the only domestic broadcaster to carry Aung San Suu Kyi’s speeches on her historic trip to Europe in June 2012. "But when it comes to sensitive issues, they haven’t reported thoroughly. They favor the government in their reporting," he said. And while Aye Chan Naing believes the government is serious about making state-run outlets more competitive, that doesn’t necessarily mean the authorities are ready to relinquish editorial control. "In order to change completely, they need to change their editorial line. You have to be independent, with an editor in chief, not someone appointed by the government," he said. For his part, Pe Myint believes transforming former propaganda organs into public-service outlets is a step too far. "I don’t think state-run media will become something like Myanmar BBC. It will be difficult for them to change that much," he said.

If the government does successfully make the transition, it’s unclear whether the next generation of journalists working in state-run media will be ready to make the most of these changes. At the Myanmar Media Development Center, which is designed to act as a pipeline of young talent for MRTV4, I asked Sucker if I could speak to some students interested in careers as journalists. After poring through the class list, he managed to find only a few with journalistic ambitions. They harbor few illusions about the challenges they face after graduation. "If you’re a journalist, you have to ask tough questions. But we’re shy and not used to questioning people above us," said Aye Chan Zaw. As a tech-savvy, educated young person who gets his news from Yahoo and Facebook, Aye Chan Zaw seems like just the kind of person to help guide Burma’s state-run media into the future. "Journalism? I don’t know," he said. "I’d really like to direct movies. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day."

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