Eleven Media-Nation pact a symbol of Myanmar and Thai 'friendship'
Dr Than Htut Aung, chairman and CEO of Eleven Media Group – Myanmar’s biggest media organisation, – is a man with a mission, and in a hurry.
While he may describe Myanmar’s moves towards democracy in the past year as “amazing”, the media magnate warns that the process is now under threat. “If Myanmar goes backwards, it will be due to corruption,” he said, reflecting a sense of uncertainty in certain quarters about the road to full democracy.
Than Htut Aung and his editorial staff have campaigned enthusiastically, with candour and boldness, for transparency and government accountability against the repressive political atmosphere right from the time the media group was founded 11 years ago.
Fittingly, Weekly Eleven News won the “Media of the Year” award in 2011 from Reporters Without Borders, for standing up to the junta and “using extraordinary ingenuity to slip through the censorship net and inform the public”.
The most recent incisive report, which gathered decisive momentum and public support, was Eleven Media’s investigative coverage of the China-backed Myitsone Hydropower project along the Ayeyarwady River in northern Myanmar. It forced the government to suspend the trouble-plagued dam despite protests from China.
But the process of democracy, of which freedom of the press is an integral part, is still an uphill battle. Recalling his launch of his media group more than a decade ago, Than Htut Aung was self-effacing and said: “I would like to admit in a simple way that I am not seriously interested in the media and I have no particular purpose. I have no professional skill to be a media person…”
As a student of medicine, Than Htut Aung won a place at a university in England in 1988, but the military junta refused to issue him a passport. He wasn’t sure he wanted to practise medicine and so, at 25 years of age, the young medical school graduate went into business. “I made moderate profits to a certain extent. Later, the business was not smooth. For a spate of reasons, mybusiness was suspended. While carrying out my remaining business, an opportunity came up to publish the First Eleven Sports Journal.”
“Eleven” came into being with a staff of just three at the beginning and an initial print run of 5,000 copies. First Eleven, a weekly, captured the readers’ imagination in a repressive, autocratic environment as Than Htut Aung and his writers cleverly crafted political messages into their football articles. “Man in the middle – the referee is ‘not fair’…football is played not just among the 22 but all the audience (an analogy to parliamentary politics).
Readers, young and old, who liked football came to love this political overtone. Not unexpectedly, in 2003, Eleven Media’s office was raided by military intelligence officers after “Eleven” ran a series of articles on a civilian massacre incident. The junta sentenced an editor to death for “treason”. Eleven was portrayed as the “symbol of protest”. Than Htut Aung was arrested but later released due to lack of evidence. Media censorship in the following year was intense.
In spite of the pressures, by 2005 Eleven moved on with determination. It soon boasted a staff of 50 and distribution grew to 12,000 copies. The reading public became more visibly interested in politically inspired football articles. Still unable to get a licence to publish a daily, Than Htut Aung launched a news weekly in 2005. Official censorship prevailed with sport articles taking one to two days for approval, and three to five days for other types of articles. ”We had to be clever and careful,” he said.
“There are some good guys in the military intelligence service...some military intelligence officers are very intelligent,” he quipped.
After 2005, the censorship situation improved somewhat with the responsibility transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Information Ministry. By that time, Eleven Media was publishing four days a week, four different titles (as weeklies and dailies were not allowed) with a combined circulation of 350,000 copies.
Following the sham election in 2010 after which a new government was installed under President General Thein Sein, Than Htut Aung took on the task of convincing the government to pursue a dialogue with the Opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to reach out to the international community.
“The president is a good guy, has a good mind… and we are lucky to have him,” says the Eleven Media founder.
In 2011, Eleven Media took the issue of the Myitsone Hydropower Dam project to the public as an environmentally disastrous undertaking by a government which assumed no accountability and wasn’t showing any serious consideration for the livelihood and welfare of the people. On the 11th anniversary of the group, Than Htut Aung openly challenged the junta with a speech and series of articles.
“I informed the government and the opposition of the real situation in our country. In the 19th century, the superpowers were the British and the French. They colonised India and us. In the 20th century, the superpower was the US and they took Vietnam, Korea and Germany. In the 21st century, it’s China and we cannot sacrifice our country to China. I told the generals and Aung San and she knows.” said Than Htut Aung.
The Myanmar government has since heeded advice amid the public’s growing restlessness over the project. It took the unprecedented step of announcing a temporary suspension of dam construction. Eleven Media journalists undertook a further investigation and reported that construction was still going on in early 2012 despite the “stop” order. The exposé pressured the government to declare a permanent suspension.
To Than Htut Aung, what has happened in his country in the past year – including the April 1 by-election and opening up of Myanmar – is, as he repeated many times, “Amazing!”
He said changes in Myanmar have been even quicker than the Arab Spring, and were visibly more stable. “The military does not want to see changes like
the Arab Spring,” he added.
Than Htut Aung says he initially looked to the next general election scheduled for 2015 with pessimism, but he is now somewhat more optimistic. But a lot still needs to be done. The draft press law that is expected to be considered by Parliament in the next few months is still dominated by the old repressive military thinking and hasn’t been drawn up with any acceptable degree of transparency. He considers Parliament and media as “soft powers”, which need to watch over the “hard power” of the military.
“We would like to see the Myanmar press open to all, like in Thailand,” he said.
On the state of journalism in Myanmar, Dr Than Htut Aung said most of his reporters and editors are self-trained. Yet, he added, most are “ethical and useful to the country”.
Today, Eleven Media employs 120 reporters and publishes four times a week. It also operates an English SMS mobile service and English websites that enjoy the highest popularity among netizens.
Than Htut Aung still writes sports articles under pseudonyms such as Minn Thaw Htut, Ko Sanay and Mann Bawlone. He also writes articles under different names, including Than Htut Aung and Mnn Bawlone.
Than Htut Aung sees the cooperation between Eleven Media and Nation Multimedia Group as mutually beneficial. “Both our cultures and histories are very close. I like the mindset of Thais…and press freedom in Thailand is very impressive,” said the Eleven Media chairman and CEO.
He is impressed with the Nation Group and its long, 42-year history, carrying the strength and values that are based on the interests of the Thai people. The Nation Group’s journalists, he said, have high “ethical standards”.
Than Htut Aung also sees the Memorandum of Understanding signed with Nation Multimedia Group as a “symbol of friendship” between Myanmar and Thailand – a “Two-Nation Friendship” pact based on freedom and integrity. “We should [as countries] not look backward but forward,” he added.
“The Nation should represent Thailand and Eleven represents Myanmar,” he added.
Than Htut Aug would like to see Eleven Media become a public company and have staff and the members of the public hold shares in the company. Myanmar plans to have a stock exchange in 2016. “It’s not just for profit. Media is our country and the public is our real partner…This media company is not owned by me, but the people of Myanmar … as they have been struggling, and they continue to fight for democracy and freedom.”