Myanmar's media system is opening up after 50 years of censorship and isolation. In early December German and Burmese journalists met in Yangon for a unique, week-long exchange.
It was a premiere: journalists from state television and reporters from the former underground station "Democratic Voice of Burma" (DVB) came together to discuss a future media system for Myanmar. Seven German journalists had also travelled to Yangon to take part in DW Akademie's "Media Dialogue Myanmar".
"This is incredibly moving," said journalist U Khine Maung Win who had spent 24 years in exile in Norway. From there he had sent back reports via satellite focusing on issues such as the 2007 violent repression of protesting monks and the devastating effects of Cyclone Nargis in 2008. He was able to do this thanks to Myanmar-based colleagues who had taken great risks to supply DVB with film material.
This was also the first time that Khine Maung Win had come back to Myanmar. The Media Dialogue provided him with an opportunity to discuss - with his new Burmese colleagues, representatives of all Burmese media and German journalists - the challenges now facing the country's media system together. "We're interested in Germany's experience with public broadcasting. We'd like to introduce a similar system here," said Win.
The German and Burmese journalists spent a week discussing various media systems, journalistic ethics and responsibility, and the journalist's role in society. The German colleagues were particularly interested in the current media politics there. Were Burmese journalists now truly able to write what they wanted, asked Anne Brühl, editor of a foreign affairs program for the German public broadcaster, ZDF. In August the military government had announced it would lift press censorship.
"There's no going back"
"We used to have to send all our reports to the censors. We don't need to do that anymore," said Thiha Saw, editor-in-chief of the weekly Open News magazine and the Myanma Dana business magazine. Since the drop of preliminary censorship he can now report more openly, on, for example, the ethnic conflicts on the border to Bangladesh.
Thiha Saw is a member of the newly-established Press Council. He and his colleagues are currently working on a code of ethics. "We want our journalists to follow the international journalism regulations," he said.
The Media Dialogue participants also spoke with U Ye Htut, the Deputy Minister of Information. Manuela Kasper-Clardige, head of DW's Business Desk, wanted to know how serious the government was with the new press freedoms and freedom of expression. She was referring to the Ministry's 16-point guideline calling for reports to be in accordance with Burmese culture. The way these guidelines are formulated remains vague and could continue to put restrictions on how the press reports. "There's no going back," assured the Deputy Minister. "We will no longer interfere with media coverage."
He said the biggest challenge right now was providing journalists with advanced training. "Staff at our stations are not true journalists but rather administrators of information," U Ye Htut said. But he admitted that was not surprising given that his ministry had made sure that reporting toed the government line. "Now it's not so easy to turn the staff into independent, responsible journalists."
And that's where DW Akademie comes in. Project manager Eberhard Sucker has been on location in Yangon since August. Over the coming months he'll be supporting the current transformation process together with the Myanmar Media Development Center (MMDC). "There was no free press here for decades and so there's now a great need for professional journalism training," says Sucker. "Although there's no censorship, journalists are not used to working this freely."