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Asia

Myanmar: Community media gets the go ahead

A new broadcasting law in Myanmar has paved the way for communities to set up their own radio stations. DW Akademie is supporting the country through it's rapidly changing media landscape.

Myanmar Workshops für Bürgermedien

Issues relevant to starting up a community radio, such as governance, equality and technical issues, were discussed - as well as financial sustainability or safety of journalists

Nan Paw Gay is dressed in a bright red longyhi, a long skirt in the traditional colours of the Karen people, one of the largest of Myanmar's many minority ethnic groups. The journalist runs a news network reporting on issues affecting the Karen people. "I have to give 24 hours a day for my media career," she says. "I think it is my responsibility to improve my region." Nan Paw Gay knows about the challenges of reporting relevant information for underrepresented communities. Karen State, on the border to Thailand, has been plagued by conflict for more than half a century.

With Myanmar on the brink of huge changes as the political and media landscapes open up, the question of how to give a voice to the voiceless is not just an issue for journalists and media development specialists, but also for the unrepresented themselves. Community media is emerging as an effective response. In cooperation with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and Scandinavian partners Fojo Media Institute and International Media Support, DW Akademie is running a series of workshops in Myanmar to introduce the idea of community broadcasting. International and local experts like Nan Paw Gay are also invited to share their knowledge with others who are interested in engaging their communities in news that affects them – despite the difficulties that this can entail.

Legal infrastructure

Myanmar Workshops für Bürgermedien

Ze Yar, Director of Radio, MRTV, gave a comprehensive presentation on Myanmar's new broadcasting law

In a country with 135 ethnic groups and more than 100 languages, many people have little or no access to mainstream media. Community media aims to address this gap, providing participatory and relevant media within specific communities. Distinct from local media – which can be commercial, privately or state owned – community media is non-profit and produced solely by community members who report on community issues affecting their community itself. While this can include journalism formats and news reporting, communities may prefer to broadcast other formats such as drama, music, weather reports or market prices instead.

Thanks to a new broadcast law passed at the end of August, communities in Myanmar will soon be able to apply for a broadcasting license. This is of huge significance in a country where almost all broadcasters are still at least partly under state control. The country is now on the cusp of its first democratic elections since a nominally civilian government took charge in 2011. Its citizens are increasingly eager to access relevant, unbiased information.

Community media

At a workshop in Yangon, Myanmar's booming second city, Per Oesterlund, a DW Akademie consultant on community media said there is now a window of opportunity for change. He was addressing participants' concerns that imposed restrictions on political reporting might also affect community media. Oesterlund explained that even in places where reporting on political issues is not permitted, community media can often still touch on its impact at a local level, for example by reporting on a shortage of school teachers or cooking gas.

Myanmar Workshops für Bürgermedien

The workshop brought together representatives of local media, international community radio experts and media development practitioners

Suman Basnet of Nepal, Asia-Pacific Coordinator for the global community radio organisation AMARC, was also on hand to share experiences from the region. AMARC currently has some 5000 member radios worldwide and that number is growing. "The birth of community radio is difficult, like the birth of democracy," Basnet said, "but the general trend is positive. It can play a crucial role in strengthening participation, cultural and linguistic diversity and in giving a voice to the marginalised."

Security concerns

While Basnet emphasised the importance of financial sustainability for a community radio to succeed, participants and other experts also looked at additional topics relevant to starting up a community radio, such as governance, equality and technical issues. Workshop participants were particularly keen to discuss whether community broadcasting was safe. In a country where armed groups and military authorities vie for power, particularly in the ethnic regions, every media outlet is in danger of being regarded as a mouthpiece for the "wrong" side.

One participant warned against being overly confident about Myanmar's progress. "There is a lot of talk about change, but we need to think about the reality," he said, mentioning security issues he had faced as a reporter. Journalism in Myanmar can in fact be a dangerous undertaking, and community media is set to face some of the same problems, especially in conflict areas. While experts agreed that this could be a challenge for community radio in Myanmar, they also pointed to its strengths in terms of promoting trust within communities. To encourage cooperation, experts said, any rebel groups or military powers acting within the community should at least be included in the initial stages of establishing a community media initiative.

Government support

The workshop also saw some state representatives lending their support to the development of community radio in Myanmar. Ze Yar, the Director of Radio at MRTV, Myanmar's state broadcaster and one of the main authors of the broadcasting law, explained the legal ins and outs of the new law. As MRTV will be involved in drafting community broadcasting regulations and monitoring pilot projects, it was also a chance for Ze Yar to listen to community representatives expressing their requirements for getting started.

Myanmar Workshops für Bürgermedien

Kyle James and Patrick Benning are managing DW Akademie's Community Radio work in Myanmar

For DW Akademie Project Manager Patrick Benning, this was one of milestones on the path towards developing community media in Myanmar. "It's the first time government representatives in this field have met with local grassroots organisations," he said and pointed to the role DW Akademie had played in helping to bring them together.

A community of interest

In a whirlwind hands-on workshop, participants learned the basics of recording and editing short video and radio interviews. Trainers from the Myanmar Journalism Institute and BBC's media development organisation proved that everyone, ranging from teenage smartphone aficionados to ethnic community elders, could learn how to record and edit an interview within just an hour.

"These workshops have also enabled us to set up our own community, a community of interest," said Kyle James, who is co-managing DW Akademie's community radio projects in Myanmar. For the workshop participants and experts it is clear that not only interest, but also passion and motivation, will be needed in Myanmar to drive community media forward. In the meantime, eager community broadcasters will have to wait while a licensing council is formed and regulations for the new law are developed. Pilot projects, however, could be launched within the next six months – and DW Akademie's Myanmar team will be on hand to support the new additions to the country's airwaves.