As I watch the walls that have held the Burmese people captive in their own country for decades dismantled bit by bit, day by day, I share in the joy of possibilities to come. I have spent 10 months out of the past five years training journalists inside Myanmar and three months working with them in Thailand. Many Burmese journalists have honored me with their friendship, and I can easily say my time there was among the most rewarding, and I hope most productive, in my 12 years as a journalism trainer.
The men and women who have built the private press in Burma, basically from scratch beginning in about 2000, are as dedicated to serving their readers as any I know on the planet. Most are considerably braver, a prerequisite to practicing journalism in Burma under the string of juntas and dictators stretching back 50 years. If the government is serious about bringing Myanmar into the world of nations – and Burmese will tell you from experience that it’s still too early to celebrate – I have no doubt that Burmese journalists stand ready to deliver an accurate, fair and balanced media that can help guide the country toward democracy and make a tidy profit in the doing. But it’s going to take some adjustment, and there are several areas where foreign journalistic colleagues can help.
The good and the bad news about abolishing censorship
Imagine never having to worry about being sued for libel for something published in your pages. Or never needing to be concerned about offending readers with culture-bending photos or about crossing the line of treason. Except for very rare exceptions, these offenses were previously unheard of. Every word of every newspaper, magazine, book and song was cleared by state censors before publication. The bad news was that much, sometimes most, of what editors planned to print came back from the censors unrecognizable – drowned in red ink. If their offense was particularly egregious, their journal was shut down for two weeks or longer. The good news was that the censors took the weight of ethical reporting off of their shoulders, cutting anything critical of the government or controversial (read “news”). Of course, that doesn’t sound like good news, and editors would gladly trade protection from lawsuits and government sanctions for the right to speak the truth to power. But there will be a transition period during which media laws will need to be drafted and understood (and probably changed) by journalists. A new breed of media lawyers will be needed, provided an even playing field arrives at the courts. An editor of the country’s largest newspaper told me that she fears self-censorship by publishers under threat of expensive lawsuits more than state censors’ pens. U Tint Swe, the director of the Press Scrutiny Board and as such the head censor in Myanmar, told me and has said publicly that he doesn’t believe censorship has a place in the future of the country. Unless he’s overruled by his superiors, editors will need to learn how to give the readers the information they need and deserve without risking financial ruin.
On a steep learning curve – Burma needs short-term training and post-secondary journalism programs
Considering the obstacles, Burmese journalists have benefited from lots of training, mostly conducted in secret outside of Myanmar but more recently openly inside the country. Many reporters and editors have a fundamental grasp on journalism standards. A few are adept at practicing them. But most newsrooms are still staffed by green reporters hired off the street with no journalism experience and condemned to learn the craft on the job from colleagues who may have little more experience.
The usual model of editors mentoring reporters hasn’t worked very well in Burma. Most editors came to the job from other professions when the journals were founded a decade ago and in many cases have not received training. They have the authority of an editor, but not the skills. I have heard reporters complain that rather than teach them new skills, their editors will not let them use what they have learned in workshops. Clearly there will be a continuing need for skills training in every newsroom for the short term, for both reporters and editors.
For the long term, the time has come to establish post-secondary journalism programs in Yangon and Mandalay at least. The government’s journalism program bears little resemblance to what most would recognize as a journalism school. So far as I know, there has been no talk of reforming it. I believe the best way forward is for journalists themselves to fund one or more two-year journalism certificate programs. Some publishers have the financial wherewithal to do this, and there is a small pool of professional journalists in the country who could spearhead the curriculum, perhaps with outside consultation at first. A modest program could graduate 20 journalists per year – 20 newsroom-ready young reporters by anyone’s definition to raise the journalistic bar in the nation’s newsrooms. Donors could assist with curriculum development, scholarships and trainers.
In the meantime, there are many worthy and capable Burmese journalists who could be offered scholarships to study overseas for Master’s degrees in journalism. They will be needed to build and oversee training efforts and post-secondary education soon, if all goes well. I can think of only one Burmese journalist with a Master’s degree in journalism currently working in Myanmar.
The business side
The Burmese journals are ahead of many of their counterparts who are struggling to stay in business as their countries emerge from darker times. Burmese editors enjoy a literate public that loves to read. There is a growing advertising industry, even without the benefit of American marketing dollars, absent because of sanctions. Somehow more than 300 weekly journals manage to publish, even if some of them need benefactors to stay afloat. 7-Day News, the largest weekly news journal, surpassed 100,000 circulation last year. It and others are making money, sometimes a good deal of money. But they need to improve their products, pay their staff better, and remain or become independent of benefactors. Myanmar does not have a tradition of aggressive advertising sales, and the easing of government restrictions could offer opportunities to expand circulation. There is more money, and more independence, to be had.
With few exceptions, Burmese journalists take their own photos to accompany their stories. These are generally lifeless shots, sometimes with no people in the frame. And when there are people in the picture, they are ineffectively tiny in the background. Photojournalism workshops so far, I believe, have attracted professional and amateur (often non-journalist) participants. While these workshops are useful, especially for the photojournalists who shoot for journals, they don’t have an effect on the vast majority of photos in the journals – those shot by reporters. It might be interesting to try brief photojournalism workshops, maybe 2-3 days, in the newsrooms.
Add voices to the debate
Although it has been possible since about 2009 to train journalists openly in Yangon, the same cannot be said for the states, where Myanmar’s ethnic peoples struggle for a voice. The Burmese army has been very effective in keeping the ethnic peoples from establishing media. Some ethnic journalists have received training outside Burma, but if the country opens up and it becomes safe to speak and publish, I anticipate a ravenous demand for assistance throughout the rest of the country. Launching newspapers in these areas will most likely start from scratch.
Radio and TV
There are talented journalists waiting in the shadows for the government to begin granting private broadcast licenses – not only to cronies and families of the generals – but to those interested in building the country. As of last summer, the authorities did not allow news to be broadcast by private radio, and the only “private” TV station was firmly in the government sphere. If the media become free or at least freer, demand for Burmese news broadcasts coming from the outside from the likes of the VOA, RFA, DVB and possibly even the venerated BBC can be expected to wane in favor of locally-produced programming. These stations, too, will need to start largely from scratch.
A word to my Burmese colleagues
I’d like to leave my Burmese journalism colleagues with one word of caution. If the country continues to open up, Burma will likely become the darling of the journalism development industry. NGOs bearing program proposals will be flooding into the country, competing for your cooperation. There will be many worthy colleagues among them. Nevertheless, make sure you really need what they are offering, and do some internet research on the people and organizations to learn how they performed in previous countries. In short, do the reporting. Keep up the great work that you do.
Warmest regards, Doug Cosper