The dark ages before media reform in Myanmar

Published in Mizzima Business Weekly on 23 March 2014

A November 2012 edition of the state-run New Light of Myanmar
A November 2012 edition of the state-run New Light of Myanmar

A panel discussion held on March 10 during the East-West Center’s international media conference in Yangon highlighted just how rapid the pace of media reform in Myanmar has been – albeit while remaining incomplete.

During the session titled, “Covering Burma from the outside: How the world got its news pre-media reforms”, one of the panelists, U Than Lwin Htun, the head of Voice of America’s Burmese service, gave a stark example of how the tone of state-run media has changed in recent times.

He showed a slide featuring a headline in The New Light of Myanmar of March 10, 2010, which proclaimed: “Do not allow ourselves to be swayed by killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles.”

The “killer broadcasts” listed as posing a threat were those of the BBC – which set up a bureau in Yangon this year – VOA and DVB. Likewise, Mizzima was constantly in the bad books until recently, as were all exile media organisations trying to report on Myanmar under a brutal military regime.

Fast forward to March 10, 2014, when presidential spokesman and Deputy Information Minister U Ye Htut said in his opening address at the East-West Center conference: “The president believes that the media has a clear role in democracy… It is a vital process for the evolution of democratic culture in our society.”

Nonetheless Time journalist Hannah Beech, who wrote the cover story for the magazine last year which featured an image of the Venerable U Wirathu accompanied by the heading “The Face of Buddhist Terror,” (the edition was subsequently banned by the government), was denied a visa to attend the conference on the somewhat ominous justification that it “could bring undesirable consequences on the event and to her”.

U Than Lwin Htun spent years reporting on Myanmar from outside the country and was all too familiar with the challenges involved – which he cited as distorted information, military propaganda, denial of access, and constant “information blackouts.”

“At one point, while I was working for the BBC, there a complete information blackout for four days. CNN in Hong Kong contacted me for information, assuming I knew more than most because I am myself Burmese. ‘Do you know what’s going on?’ they asked.

“I said I didn’t know anything and that my mother was in Rangoon – I hadn’t heard from her in four days and didn’t know whether she was alive or dead. People outside were so desperate for information.”

When rumours circulated in 2001 that former dictator General Ne Win had died, the BBC again asked U Than Lwin Htun to confirm whether the news was true.

“They asked me every day for a week, but still I couldn’t verify whether he’d died. As it turned out, he hadn’t – he died a year later.”

Another problem was the difficulty of sourcing – “there were so many fears and rumours, and hate and opinions,” said U Than Lwin Htun.

Even when people were willing to talk, the difficulty of verifying information often made it impossible to publish reports without risking credibility.

On one occasion, one of U Than Lwin Htun’s sources provided information and urged him to use her name.

“ ‘Are you sure?’ I asked, and she replied, ‘Of course I’m sure.’

But the day after the report was broadcast, the woman – who he said was as old as his mother – was arrested.

“I felt so guilty for being responsible for her imprisonment,” he said.

Even consuming news inside Myanmar was extremely risky. Nonetheless, in some ways, Myanmar people became even more determined to access it. The panel’s moderator, Jeanne Hallacy, director of programmes at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand told a story to illustrate just how valued Bertil Lintner’s articles on Myanmar were to people inside the country.

“There was one man in prison who used to ask his wife to go to Bogyoke Market to buy a bootlegged copy of a magazine that had one of Bertil’s articles in it. She’d then tear out the page and wrap it around the parcel of chicken biriyani she brought to him in prison. He’d go to great lengths to meticulously wipe off the grease so that he could read the article,” Ms Hallacy said.

For his part, Mr Lintner, quipped that he wasn’t actually “Journalist Enemy Number One” of the military regime as many had assumed, “because there was another journalist who was publishing articles about Myanmar every day, while I was only writing one once a week.”

Mr Lintner first came to Myanmar in 1977, aged 24.

“I came as a traveller – I never had any formal training as a journalist, but I soon became fascinated with the country after realising that the outside world knew nothing about it. ‘Burma’ could have been ‘Bermuda’, for all people knew,” he said.

Despite initially writing under a pen name, it wasn’t long before his identity was uncovered and he saw it was fruitless not to use his own name. Mr Lintner was blacklisted in 1985 and was only able to return to Myanmar last year.

He gave a poignant example of how asking one simple question could become a matter of life and death.

“I was able to ask [the head of Military Intelligence] Khin Nyunt whether he could confirm reports that a BBC stringer who had been arrested was being tortured.

“ ‘Can you confirm or deny this?’ I asked – and he replied, ‘Well, he’s a communist.’

“I said I didn’t care what the man’s political orientation was and then Khin Nyunt told me he was fine. Then, just to prove that I was wrong, Khin Nyunt arranged for a doctor to visit the stringer and his diet in prison drastically improved.”

Mr Lintner applauded the bravery of all of Myanmar’s unsung heroes, who risked imprisonment or worse – to inform the world about the situation inside the country.

“People had to suffer because they provided [journalists] with information. Without them, we would have had nothing to write about.”

Panelist U Zin Linn, a prolific writer who contributes to Burma News International, Asian Correspondent, Asian Tribune and Myanma Freedom Daily and is based in Chiang Mai, spent seven years in prison for his involvement in the student pro-democracy movement. He was also regularly used by journalists as a source inside Myanmar. U Zin Linn was sentenced to an extra seven years for setting up a prison newspaper, but was subsequently released and fled to Thailand in 2001.

“Even inside prison, our determination to know what was going on outside never left us,” he said.

“But we worked under an atmosphere of extreme control, with phone calls most often being tapped and recorded.”

When a member of the audience asked Mr Lintner if he is confident that Myanmar’s newfound press freedom is not at risk of reverting to the dark days of the past, he replied: “It’s hard to believe that the situation could go back to what it was in the 1980s. But there are indications that Myanmar’s government may adopt the Singapore press model, which curbs freedom of expression through endless litigation in the courts. It’s an abuse of the law and just as serious.”


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