TEN YEARS AFTER attending his first basic journalism course with Internews, Myint Kyaw is now himself teaching the topic at a rural community paper start-up that’s just had a ‘baptism of fire’. After refusing to drop a sensitive story after pressure from an upset hospital official, the editorial board instead offered the official the chance to tell her side of the story. So pleased was the official at the fairness of the paper that she ended up joining its board.
While the Rangoon-based media has received much attention, little is known about the rise in and success stories of local journalism in the huge territory that makes up the rest of Burma. Shoe-string budgets and insufficient transport infrastructure means rural and ethnic communities are still worlds away from the national and global media explosion.
Most national Rangoon newspapers are distributed only as far as the large towns of many regions and states. Rural populations that remain extremely cut off are left to fill the information gaps themselves.
Building Bridges Across the Border
Myint Kyaw knows about living with isolation. When he attended his first Internews training at a discreet Rangoon location, the most appealing element was that there had been "nothing like it" in the then-reclusive country. The same was the case in 2006 when he travelled to Bangkok for a two-month Internews training on globalization and economics.
Then a reporter for the monthly business journal Myanmar Dana, he welcomed the chance to learn about regional politics and international business from an outside perspective.
The course also helped build and expand Burmese reporters' relationships with foreign news outlets and journalists, which proved crucial when authorities clamped down on the media the following two years during the Saffron Revolution and Cyclone Nargis.
Throughout those events, Myint Kyaw and other Burmese reporters worked clandestinely with Internews and foreign colleagues to break the information blackout and ensure news reached international outlets, particularly exile broadcasters who could feed news back into the country.
New Opportunities, New Challenges
With seed money from Internews, in 2on Myint Kyaw and other Internews alumni started Yangon Press International (YPI), a daily news service using Facebook as its platform.
Privately owned daily newspapers had been banned in Burma for decades. YPI successfully "tested the waters" by providing news on Facebook on a daily basis. Funding gaps eventually meant the service was discontinued, but Facebook has since taken off to become the most popular entry platform for online news in Burma.
Today, as the secretary general of the Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), the second largest of three national journalism associations, Myint Kyaw is focused on two looming challenges.
In August 2013, MJN members collected thousands of signatures for a petition to uphold pressure on the government to deliver on its promises of media freedom that journalists say remain under threat from proposed laws and regulations.
In this context, he said, the second challenge is to build a culture of media ethics and professionalism. It's a particularly daunting task, he says, but one that is more crucial than ever before.
In early November 2013, the MJN criticized a local private journal for carrying out unsubstantiated personal attacks on the grandson of former Senior-General Than Shwe.
"It is okay to publish opinions, but some people like to think that making personal and political attacks in the media is a part of journalism," Myint Kyaw told DVB news. "Seasoned news readers in other countries can tell the difference, but readers in Myanmar are presently unclear about which is which."
Despite the optimism he feels when he sees small outlets beat the odds to produce quality journalism, he knows media freedoms are still tenuous. Poor journalism could be used as a pretext, he believes, "to promote the idea that the media should be controlled by the government."
Read the full report - New Freedoms, New Challenges - with all eleven journalist profiles.