Journalism Under a New Democracy

 Myanmar’s political transition is at the same time an opportunity as much as a challenge for local journalists. Soon after the censorship for print media was removed in August, 2012, private daily newspapers were booming, creating ample of opportunities for young journalists. Not only the number of print media was expanding very quickly, but also the number of issues journalists could cover increased like never before in the censorship-free environment.

Under the dictatorship of previous military regimes independent journalism was almost killed in Myanmar as the free press was treated as enemy of the state. In the past, governments tried to limit the number of media outlets. Only those who were close to the military regime could obtain the license for media ownership. Only recently this system has improved and anybody can apply for a license for print media as long as he or she does not have a criminal record. In terms of the content media can cover, the notorious Press Scrutiny and Registration Division previously imposed a highly intrusive and coercive censorship. This system ultimately constrained the growth of the journalistic profession. In some cases, the journalists in Myanmar used to consider that ethics and sense of responsibility does not lie with them but with the state through the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division Now the censorship has gone some unethical media emerged in the new free environment.

Recently a lot of new potential threats to media democracy in Myanmar are coming from corporate and political interests. Some cronies and politicians are intruding into the media market and are using media as a weapon for their power rivalry. Racist media led by radical Buddhist monks also came into existence and diluted the value of freedom of expression. But people are now aware that reckless media can be as dangerous as the former government controlled propaganda media machine and censorship. Such an illiberal media can never protect the interests of the minority while the majority is ruling the country even in a democratic system.

Therefore before it reaches a state of consolidated democracy, Myanmar needs to look at several successful examples of democratic transformations from different parts of the world. Learning about democratic values from a more matured democracy could be an advantage for Myanmar. Journalists are supposed to serve as a vehicle of mutual learning between Myanmar and foreign countries. On the one hand, they are the intermediaries who have to interpret and inform about what they see in the outside world to the domestic readers. On the other hand, they are capable to explain what Myanmar stands for today to the global audience. Myanmar, which was long perceived as an isolated country was little known by the outside world before. Once the country started to reform itself and opened up, the interest of many outsiders to learn more about the real changes on the ground increased dramatically.

In November 2013, a group of Myanmar journalists were invited to Germany for such an opportunity for learning and exchange by the TAZ Panter Foundation, the Heinrich Böll Foundation and the Federal Foreign Office of Berlin. Under the theme of “Journalism Under a New Democracy“, ten Myanmar journalists participated in this program in an attempt to widen the knowledge window for both, the visitors as well as the hosts. Senior journalists from Die Tageszeitung, the daily newspaper commonly referred to as taz mainly facilitated the workshop and shared experiences about ethical journalism, fight against corruption in the real world and in journalism and conflict sensitive reporting.

In spite of time constraints during the one week workshop, there were many chances for the Myanmar journalists to learn about liberal elements of German democracy. One of the elements is about free media. While the Myanmar government is now proposing to invent public service media by enacting a new law, journalists and international human rights organizations seriously criticized the law because of its potential to allow the State to continue its monopoly on major parts of broadcasting media. In Berlin, journalists studied about the German media landscape and how it differs from that of Myanmar. They were also introduced how a real public service media can function in a European state with public funding. Public service media in Europe is a mechanism to counter profit-oriented corporate media. The way it emerged is different from Myanmar public service media, which is a state media in disguise still under control by the communist-like central management system. By learning the history of German media, journalists could clearly see why diverse and pluralistic voices in society are so important. Again the experiences of taz also enlightened the group that there is always a way to survive for critical journalism against private monopoly and interference by profit oriented ownership, in the form of a cooperative owned by its own readers. The way to do innovative fund raising could be important for concerned journalists who want to continue their quality job in Myanmar which is likely to be ruled mainly by cooperate interest in near future. Many other Asian countries have witnessed such type of media transformation and now Myanmar is in the middle of this process.

The visiting Journalists from Myanmar also visited the Federal Press Conference of Berlin which is designed to provide information to the journalists as comprehensively as possible for issues related to Germany. This was a surprise for Myanmar journalists who usually see press conferences organized by Myanmar Ministries which usually summoned journalist to come and listen to the officials. Here, the visiting journalists saw that the leaders of the government and high ranking officials came to see the journalists in the conference hall which belonged to the press folks.

Such accountability to the people by a democratic government was again witnessed during the visit to German Federal Foreign Office. Although there were many things to learn from the spokes person of the public relations department who told the visitors about how hard the Ministry is working to inform the people in a timely and diplomatic manner, the most striking thing to many of the visiting journalists from Myanmar was an art piece near the canteen for the office staff: The statues of three standing people which are representing men and women of all walks of life in Germany were placed at a higher level compared to the ground floor of the canteen where the officials came to eat for lunch. The statues seemed like watching through the window over the visitors in the canteen referring to the essence of democracy: “A rule by the people, for the people”. The statues are telling the officials of any rank that they must be humble under the power of the people. These standing people are reminding officials working here in Federal Foreign Office every day that the power they are practicing is entrusted to them by the people therefore respect to the people is extremely important. The impact of this lesson learned is not negligible as one visiting journalist wrote about it in a daily newspaper in Myanmar upon returning from the trip. In the article the Journalist compared this experience with the attitude of many Myanmar government officials who usually behave as if they are higher in social hierarchy above the people.

Like in anywhere in the world, transition from dictatorship to a democracy cannot happen overnight. However, Germany’s example shows that democratic practices and institutions can be nurtured and gain maturity over the time. The way German society has transformed itself since the downfall of the dictatorship following the end of WWII was explained by the representatives of the Heinrich Boell Foundation and views on Myanmar’s political transition were exchanged with the Myanmar journalists. The unique existence of German Political Foundations with multiple roles in society is something new to Myanmar political culture. The contribution of Political Foundations to democracy as a think tank, public policy advocates and human rights defender is another new dimension of Germany that Myanmar journalists could carry back home.

After a glance into German society, it was the visitor’s turn to share highlights of Myanmar’s current situation with the German audience. A public talk about Myanmar’s Democratic Change was organized at the taz Panter Foundation where four Myanmar journalists discussed on different aspects of contemporary life in Myanmar. This podium provided a forum for the German participants of the program and others to gain more insights into the former pariah state. In the past, talking about Myanmar always had the touch of mystery. But now more direct communication channels are open such as having Myanmar journalists in Berlin as “unofficial diplomats” of Myanmar and a dialogue between people to people is made possible. As part of the visitors program the Myanmar Journalists also wrote thematic issues and updates on Myanmar for German readers in a four page supplement published in Die Tageszeitung.

The role of journalists is crucial in a democratic transition especially a difficult one like in Myanmar. They are vehicles for communication between domestic audiences and overseas. After a prolonged isolation, Myanmar needs as many vehicles as possible which can carry the knowledge that is helpful for building democracy and strengthening civic life. In this regard the trip to Germany was a welcome and valuable contribution.