Myanmar's exiled media starting to head home

opinion April 23, 2012 00:00

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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News of Myanmar's exiled media returning home has excited the community of dissidents and media activists around the world.

With the Arab Spring and increasing democratisation in various parts of the world, journalists who fled many other countries for an extended period of time are also returning home. However, they all face different challenges during these transitional periods, depending on how media-friendly the government in power is. Having operated without interference, these media outlets and journalists are fiercely independent and highly professional, with a hard-earned creditability.

It is only in recent years that stories from exiled media began to emerge on how they contributed to the dramatic political changes on their home fronts. Once they were the official targets of attacks. Now they have gained respect even from those who previously tried to oppress them. Returning media exiles share one common important trait: they all have promised to serve as faithful watchdogs in their societies — something they have done from thousands of kilometres away in different time zones. Truth be told, nowhere have the changes been as radical and impressive as in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s case is intriguing because the government decided to invite exiled media early on during its reform process to return and contribute to nation-building and media professionalism inside the country. There are many exiled Burmese journalists of varying quality and experience working for a dozen news organisations, including ethnic minority news outlets, or blogging. The New Delhi-based Mizzima News has made a successful transition into Burma with a local printing licence. The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma is negotiating with the Nay Pyi Taw authorities for a broadcasting licence in the future. 
Currently, the government is focusing on print media. Burmese News International, an umbrella for small ethnic media groups based in Thailand, hopes to set up offices in minority areas. 
Other groups including the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy have made similar moves, but are being more cautious. Interestingly, each exiled media organisation planning to return to Burma has also worked out a contingency plan by maintaining overseas offices in case of a reversal in the reforms.
Burmese journalists are highly trained and professional. For decades, they had to operate overseas, sometimes far away from their own country, gathering and then dispatching news back to the country, to which they had no direct access. They are among the most innovative groups among worldwide exiled media today through the use of satellites and every kind of media technology. For instance over the past two decades, the DVB developed a sophisticated network of reporters and secretive ways of delivering their news reports on a day-to-day basis. Relying on groups of clandestine journalists, including the well-known underground video journalists, inside the country, they informed the Burmese at home about what was really going on in their backyards. 
Recently, DVB also filed a report on the thank-you party given by opposition party leader Aung San Suu Kyi, filmed by one of its journalists. It was the only media outlet that reported on the reception, which was rather controversial as only 19 journalists were invited. 
Among journalists, debates continue as to whether it was a faux pas on the part of the National League for Democracy to express appreciation to journalists or media outlets that reported positively on Suu Kyi and the party’s activities. Indeed, it is no secret that she has been the subject of positive news reports since her release. Before and during the by-election campaign in March, almost all printed media, barring the government-run media, filled their front pages with her photos and quotes. Indeed, editors and reporters at home are now facing a dilemma on how to cover her stories and activities without putting too positive a spin on it. In this case, DVB shows the unique character of exiled media.
Unlike other closed societies, the Burmese authorities realise the urgency and benefits of rallying exiled media to their side. They have taken concrete steps to attract them, with the goal of integrating the exiled media into the wider society as soon as possible. 
In recent months, censorship has been partly eased, pending the new media law, which is due by the end of this year. Within Asean, especially among the members with restrictive media, this trend is quite disturbing because the Burmese media scene is receiving positive international media coverage. For decades, Burma’s media freedom ranked among the world’s worst in various global media indexes. But this will change with the new evaluation next year.
That helps explain why the exiled journalists visiting Burma to hold talks with the authorities were asked to impart their experience and professionalism obtained overseas to their local colleagues. Some were even asked privately to help train officials dealing with spokespeople for various ministries to improve media communication.
Burma aside, it is hard to know the exact number of exiled media organisations around the world. It is estimated that there are around 50 outlets covering at least 20 locations including Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Belarus, Yemen, Iran, Zimbabwe, China, Cuba, Bhutan, Tibet, Sudan and Eritrea. Every day, hundreds of journalists-in-exile, some of them political activists, work from their homes or offices to inform their own people and the rest of the world of the “real news”, using their own limited resources and outside funding.
All around the world, undemocratic governments, especially dictatorial ones that have made an about-face, understand media operations and their weaknesses and strengths. Their leaders know and can play along with the journalists’ ethos and pledge to respect media independence and integrity, but when push comes to shove, the authorities immediately put them down. That helps explain why there is still so much suspicion of the changes taking place in Burma and elsewhere.
It remains to be seen how Burma’s exiled media come to terms with their new turf. Their hard-headed investigative skills and other media talents will certainly be useful in monitoring and checking the authorities’ performance to ensure that they genuinely work for democracy and the wellbeing of the people.