It's an unprecedented upswing for Myanmar's media. At the center: journalist U Myint Kyaw. He's fighting for imprisoned colleagues, is sitting on the newly-formed Press Council and is training a new generation.
"I remember it well. It was October 2012 and a journalist accidentally took a photo of a policeman," recalls U Myint Kyaw. "He wanted to photograph an intersection and by chance the officer ended up in the picture." But that was already enough. The reporter was arrested. From prison he called the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN) for help. At the time, U Myint Kyaw was Secretary General of the newly founded network. He spent two hours negotiating with the police before managing to convince them that the photo was simply a mistake. The journalist was finally released. "The police refused to believe him," says the 52-year-old. "But because we're an association, we carry more weight in situations like these."
When U Myint Kyaw and his colleagues founded the network, journalists were being imprisoned and arbitrarily detained almost daily. The country had suffered brutal military rule for 60 years. Those were tough times for everyone, including for the media. Every text was censored and journalists who were overly-critical were sentenced to long prison terms. And then in 2011, the tide turned. The military leadership made way for a nominally civilian government, which set in motion a spectacular process of reform. A group of journalists, among them U Myint Kyaw, took advantage of the unexpected opportunity and founded their journalists' network.
The MJN has meanwhile grown to become Myanmar's second largest journalists' association. Its public campaigns have made it well known throughout the country. The network also offers its members legal counsel and represents their interests vis-à-vis the still powerful state authority. Just how important that protection is, is something that U Myint Kyaw himself experienced first-hand. He has now been working as a journalist for 13 years. When he began his career, reporting independently on local and political events was virtually impossible. It was almost exclusively the government media and foreign correspondents who were granted accreditation.
U Myint Kyaw started his13-year journalism career under the watchful eyes of the censors. Censorship was lifted in 2012
In those days, U Myint Kyaw also produced undercover articles for exiled media, writing under a pseudonym."The whole thing was very dangerous," recalls U Myint Kyaw. "We could only do very low-profile research. No photos, no surveys, nothing that would attract attention."
He was never arrested, but he did have one close call. It happened on a historic day in November 2010, the day Myanmar's opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, was due to be released after 15 years of house arrest. U Myint Kyaw took a photo of a police car that had taken up its post near Aung San Suu Kyi's house. "The officers saw me, and of course they suspected right away that I worked for the opposition media. Government reporters would never have photographed a police car," says U Myint Kyaw. "They came over to me, demanded identification, and then ripped the camera out of my hands and erased the photos."
Times have changed, but...
Intimidation, threats, prison... all of that's now supposedly consigned to history. Recently, U Myint Kyaw was elected for a three-year term on Myanmar's Press Council. A new media law has invested the 24-member committee with the authority to mediate in disputes related to media coverage - if possible, without having journalists arrested or convicted.
Four years earlier, Myanmar's government had set up an interim press council to regulate the media as a replacement for the defunct censorship office. From the start of 2014, DW Akademie, Deutsche Welle's media development organization, advised and supported the interim council in its transformation into a permanent body.
These are all small steps. Everything is still very new. "We first have to earn our claim to legitimacy," says U Myint Kyaw. And yet, "now is the time to create strong institutions and solid legal frameworks to protect our media freedom. And that's what I see as my job!"