In Exile or At Home, Working in Burma's Media Isn't Easy
Posted By Asia Media Forum | Saturday, February 21, 2009 08:36:04 PM

Despite the numerous challenges they grapple with, the Burmese media in exile still play a crucial role in urging the people to speak out against Burma's repressive military government and take the long and dangerous road to democracy, says Burmese journalist Htet Aung Kyaw.

Speaking at about the role of the media at a conference earlier this February in Barcelona, Spain, the journalist for the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a non-profit media organisation run by Burmese exiles and journalists, gave an overview about the media situation in the South-east Asian country ruled by the Gen. Than Shwe-led junta.

"Here in Barcelona, Spain, or elsewhere in Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan, media workers are safe and sound. But in Burma, while the world's most notorious military junta is still in power, it is very difficult and dangerous work," he said.

Apart from Japanese photojournalist Kenji Nagai, who was shot at the height of the September 2007 demonstrations, Htet said that citizen journalists in his country are still missing. Twelve journalists, including some undercover reporters for the DVB TV were detained in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the constitutional referendum in 2008, he added.

Burma's government controls majority of the country's multi-media, including 75 percent ownership of private print media ranging from journals to magazines numbering to about 300.

Htet Aung Kyaw said that there are some media-in-exile organisations that offer satellite TV, short wave and radio services. These are the DVB, Radio Free Asia, Voice of America and the BBC's Burmese Service. The Internet also has the Thailand-based English-language 'The Irrawaddy' and India-based 'Mizzima', as well as the New Era and Network Media Group.

Ethnic-language Internet news service also abound, with the independent 'Mon News Agency', 'Kachin News Group', 'Kaladan Press', 'Kantarawaddy Times', 'Kaowao News', 'Khonumthung News', 'Narinjara News' and 'Shan Herald Agency for News' leading the pack. The number of anti-government blogs within and outside the country is also increasing.

Htet Aung Kaw noted that due to this tight control of content in his country's media, people have begun to "lose interest on the government-owned media" and instead, turn to Korean teledramas and movies. When they do buy newspapers, "they skip the front pages and go straight to the back pages to read the obituaries section".

"Journalists working for the 300 private journals and magazines have no chance to write about political, economic or social issues as these are censored by the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB)," he said. Thus, it's no surprise that many reading fare in Burma offer nothing but photos of sexy women, fashion, pop music, horoscopes and foreign sports news.

Htet also said that the media-in-exile have their share of problems. "Journalists in exile, especially donor-based media organisations, face a different form of censorship or self-censorship," he explained referring to an "unofficial warning" from Burmese pro-democracy groups to the media to avoid criticising the former. "'You can criticise the military regime as much as you want but leave us alone' has become a running joke in our circle. Many politicians in exile and inside the country have a limited understanding of the role of independent media," he said.

Continued Htet: "Some politicians have even told me that this is not the right time to criticise the movement, as all it will do is benefit the enemies of the pro-democracy movement."

Other excerpts from his speech:

"Some pro-democracy groups have sent letters of complaint to donors when we have criticised the weak points of the government-in-exile. This could make it very hard for media organisations that want to play an independent role in the coming 2010 elections, which most pro-democracy groups oppose. They are still holding on to the result of the 1990 election and are demanding this result be respected before new election can be held."

On censorship:

"The main job of publishers and chief editors is to try to strike a good deal with PSB officials, which means giving gifts of whisky, tobacco or money to encourage them to approve their stories on time."

"Moreover, every journal and magazine must add at least one story from the Information Ministry either propaganda about government activities or an attack on the opposition and the pro-democracy movement."

"Every journalist needs permission from the relevant ministers to interview any civil servant. Young and active journalists have often been detained on the accusation that they have not had proper permission from a minister."

On the international community's role:

"I would like to urge the European Commission and the western community to support the media-in-exile and look for opportunities to challenge the Burmese government-controlled media. Unless the generals' negative view of independent media is changed, it will be hard for foreign journalists to go to Burma." (

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