The 32 year old print journalist welcomes the positive changes affecting Myanmar's media sector but says there is still much to be done.
Zaw Win Than has been with The Myanmar Times since 2006 and this year was appointed chief of staff. The weekly newspaper publishes both an English and Myanmar language edition. In October Zaw Win Than together with 10 other Myanmar journalists came to Germany to learn about changes affecting print media. Visits to several publishing houses gave them insight into various business models.
After decades of isolation, Myanmar has over the last two years opened up. What have been the changes for you as a journalist?
The biggest change is that there is no more censorship. We used to have to show the censors everything - including ads - ahead of time in order to get approval. They marked stories they didn't like which meant we couldn't publish them. If we had, there would have been repercussions. We had so many stories that were well researched and written but we weren't allowed to print them.
How did you react when you heard that censorship had been dropped?
Everyone, including myself, literally jumped for joy. I never thought it could happen and was amazed when it actually did. Nevertheless, even though we can now write much more freely we still lean towards self-censorship because we're not always sure how far we can go. My newspaper has applied for a license allowing us to publish a daily edition, but so far we haven't received one. We don't know why that is but the current media law isn't very transparent. On the other hand many new newspapers are now on the market so we’re definitely on the right path.
How are the newspapers doing financially?
As far as I can tell they're not doing very well. There's much more competition now and due to Myanmar's poor infrastructure it's difficult to distribute newspapers nationwide. Still, The Myanmar Times itself is doing well and we now have more advertisements than before. This has to do with the fact that we're a quality newspaper and that we offer both an English and Myanmar language edition.
What about training programs for journalists?
There aren't really any. There is a state journalism program but I'm not impressed. Some of the graduates applied to our newspaper and when we interviewed them they in fact knew very little. What we need at this point are good journalism schools and institutes. But we can now at least take part in external trainings and international organizations have been approaching us. Through this DW Akademie project, for example, I've gained a number of new insights.
In Germany many involved in print media are afraid of competition coming from the Internet. Is this an issue in Myanmar?
Not at this point. Newspapers are still the main medium partly because there's limited access to the Internet. In fact only two percent of the population have access and it will take at least another decade before access becomes widespread. However, like many publishing houses in Myanmar we do have our own website but it's not our priority.
What have you gained from this trip?
I've become aware of some very interesting and unique business strategies. We visited a number of publishing houses, including the daily taz newspaper in Berlin. The newspaper is set up like a cooperative, it has its own trust and also runs a café. Another example is the Impulse magazine in Hamburg which offers lower advertising rates for small and medium sized companies; this creates a fairer pricing structure. And the Hamburger Abendblatt has an ombudsman for readers - something I didn't even know existed. I'll be talking to my colleagues about these strategies and thinking about how they might apply to The Myanmar Times.
What are your hopes for Myanmar's media sector?
I hope more than anything that we will have a free press and that there will be no censorship at all. Although pre-censorship has disappeared the Ministry of Information still requires us to send issues once they've been published, and so the Ministry retains the right to reprehend us. We also need a transparent media law as soon as possible. The Lower House recently passed a media law but many journalists and media experts feel it doesn't go far enough. The bill came directly from the Ministry of Information and was the exact opposite of what the independent press council had suggested. Still, I hope that Myanmar will soon have a transparent media law that truly ensures a free press.