Myanmar: ″There is still heavy censorship on sensitive topics″ | Asia | DW | 12.03.2012
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Myanmar: "There is still heavy censorship on sensitive topics"

Nwet Kay Khine is a Myanmese journalist and writes for the Myanmese weekly magazine, "The Voice". She talked to DW Akademie about the current media reforms taking place in her country.

The Myanmese media was suppressed by the former military junta for decades. A military-backed civil government was elected in November 2010 and assumed power last March. It is now allowing more press freedoms. What has changed?

There used to be no communication between the government and journalists and we were only allowed to cover light topics such as sports and entertainment. News media were introduced after 2001 but were heavily censored. I used to describe the situation like this: a husband comes home tired from work and asks his wife how their four children are. One child has broken his leg, but his wife answers, "Quite good, three of our children didn't break their legs." The husband - that means the state - didn't want to know what was really going on and his wife - the people - couldn't say anything to upset him.

Portrait photo of Myanmese journalists Nwet Kay Khine (Foto: Nwet Kay Khine).

Nwet Kay Khine

And now?
Things started slowly changing in 2008 but since the 2010 elections we've been able to cover many more topics. I work for the independent weekly magazine "The Voice" which focuses on political and economic issues. We used to be heavily censored but now about 90% of our content gets published. This is also true for other weekly magazines. In terms of dailies, there are currently only three state-controlled newspapers - one in English and two in Burmese - but the government is now planning to allow independent dailies. There is still, however, heavy censorship on sensitive topics such as ethnic tensions, refugee issues and foreign - primarily Chinese - business interests.

At a recent panel discussion organized by DW Akademie you said that the media is being squeezed between the market and the state. In which way?
We certainly need the government to introduce more reforms. But international observers focus almost entirely on censorship issues and challenges to democracy. They don't see another, almost equally important factor: the economic side. Media outlets are now struggling to survive financially because market competition has increased. Media outlets now want to be the first to get the stories and distribute them before the others do. So at this stage it's as if the market, and not the government, is putting the most pressure on the media. On the positive side, though, media sales are increasing because the content has become more relevant and informative.

What role does social media play?
In September 2011 the government released its ban on the Internet and 30,000 websites were de-blocked. Social media is now the most vibrant media sector. We can access everything from Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to foreign and local media sites. But we need to remember that for now, comparatively few people in Myanmar have the financial or technological means to access the Internet.

Exiled journalists are starting to return to Myanmar. How do local journalists see this?
There are mixed feelings. Many exiled journalists were based in India and Thailand and the government saw them as a threat. They were able to get critical reports into the country and this gave us as local journalists a different perspective. Exiled journalists and officials are now meeting together and discussing media prospects. They want to set up their own media organizations and this will help diversify the media landscape. However, the local media outlets also have reservations. Exiled journalists are stronger financially and can pay more to local journalists. They also have superior technology. There is a fear that they will now be able to "highjack" local reporters.

Myanmar's democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, center, receives flowers from supporters as she leaves the Yangon District Election Commission after submitting a candidates' list of her National League for Democracy for the upcoming parliamentary by-election on Wednesday, Jan.18, 2012, in Yangon, Myanmar. Suu Kyi registered to run for a seat representing Kawhmu, a poor district south of Yangon where villagers' livelihoods were devastated by Cyclone Nargis in 2008. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

The government has announced it will soon introduce a new media law. What are your expectations?
I want it to ensure journalists' independence but I also want it to regulate media freedoms. If the media have no restrictions whatsoever there's a danger that they'll just focus on their own interests. Journalistic freedoms are important - and its equally important that journalists know their obligations, that they work responsibly and produce quality reports.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is running in the by-elections scheduled for April 1. Even if the opposition fills the 48 available seats, that won't be enough to upset the government's overwhelming majority. So how important are these elections?
They're having a huge emotional and psychological impact on the Myanmese public. If the elections are conducted correctly, people will feel that the state is no longer cheating them, that the state is serious about the reforms. This will give people a sense of security and a sense that the country is embarking on a stable path.

Nwet Kay Khine is currently in Hamburg on an Erasmus Mundus scholarship to complete her Master's degree. She returns to Myanmar in April. She took part in the recent Berlin panel discussion on Myanmar's media reforms, organized by DW Akademie and the German public broadcaster, ARD.