On September 12, USCB attended “Myanmar at a Media Crossroads: A Roundtable on Journalism’s Challenges and Impact during a Nation’s Historic Transition,” an event sponsored by Radio Free Asia (RFA). RFA representative Khin Maung Nyane, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) representative Brian Joseph, and world-renowned photojournalist Thom Cheatham discussed the ongoing challenges media outlets face in Burma.
Thom Cheatham shared photos that visually showcased the transformation of Burmese media over the past couple of years. He argued that if Burmese reporters become more involved in Burma’s current urban “Tech Revolution” by utilizing tech-centered reporting techniques, they could enable the growth of technology in rural areas and potentially drive democratic progress in Burma.
NED’s Brian Joseph talked about how Burma’s transition from a military government to a quasi-democratic system has made obvious the lack of Burmese institutions that support media. Burma has had little to no infrastructure that can provide the training necessary for reporters to learn how to facilitate news through different mediums like newspapers, radios, television, etc. Now many international organizations and foundations are providing various types of trainings for reporters, with RFA being one such organization.
RFA’s Khin Maung Nyane provided a quick glimpse into RFA’s operations in Burma. Recruiting reporters from weekly papers for daily prints, RFA provides reporters with more experience in daily news coverage. RFA also seeks to train reporters in radio, television, print, and web writing. RFA now has an office of thirty people in Rangoon with satellite locations in other major cities in Burma. Due to growing access to the internet and smart phones, RFA has been getting more and more hits within the country.
During the Q & A, the panelists discussed how Burma’s media scene is very urban-oriented given that most of Burma still lacks access to electricity, modern technology, etc., and media outlets thus cater their news to their urban audience. Reporting stories about Aung San Suu Kyi or about Burmese models selling TVs has more potential appeal to urban readers than more controversial news coverage on human rights abuses in ethnic minority areas. In order to even consider reporting on ethnic populations in the countryside, media houses need the finances to reach the country’s population at a national level.
But in impoverished Burma, who has the resources to pay media staff or invest in a media house? Aside from NGOs and international organizations and foundations, mainly Burmese cronies. This small elitist group has the deep pockets able to finance media houses in urban city hubs, and crony investment means that the government wields significant influence over content drafting, not just influence through restrictive legislation. By means of crony investment funding Burma’s news sources, the government is able to police the media through a financier. From the business standpoint, cronies are obviously unwilling to finance projects that could potentially fail, consequently investing in weeklies versus dailies and in outlets covering stories that are guaranteed to sell (e.g. stories about Aung San Suu Kyi or models selling TVs). The panelists noted that given the heavy influence of Burmese cronies in shaping the news, there is a real possibility that Burma’s press scene may become like the Indonesian press scene, which is controlled by media conglomerates commercializing and mainstreaming news.
Even media outlets funded by the international community face significant challenges. Are these outlets getting the resources they need? Is the international community allowing them to develop on their own time frame? How can they navigate restrictive media legislation in Burma, like the draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law? International media trainers are flooding into the country, but they have no cohesive vision on how best to train and educate reporters. And even though many Burmese reporters are now going through basic media training, many still lack skills in administration and management.
Many thanks to RFA for hosting the roundtable!