Journalism and the shaping of democracy

This article was originally published on Myanmar Times:

Sometimes you understand better what is going on in your home country when you are far away. Far away in this case means 10,000 kilometres.

Nine Yangon-based journalists recently spent 10 days in Germany, where they attended a workshop organised by the Berlin newspaper The Tageszeitung, more popularly known as The Taz. It was the second time the newspaper has invited journalists to visit Germany in cooperation with the German Federal Foreign Office and the Heinrich Böll Foundation. And it likely will not be the last.

The visitors got to know a country that has twice gone through its own democratic transitions: German democracy was the outcome of the transition after the end of the Nazi dictatorship in 1945 on the western side of the country, and after the end of the communist regime in 1989 in the eastern part of the country. “While Myanmar is shaping its democracy, we want to share our experiences with Burmese journalists,“ explained Sven Hansen, the Asia editor of The Taz.

The Myanmar journalists – who came from publications such The Irrawaddy, The World and The Myanmar Times – discovered the ways in which Germany has come to terms with its past as a dictatorship. They also learned about the county’s media system and political institutions, as well as the ways that different religions manage to live together peacefully.

In cold and dusty Berlin, considered one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, the Myanmar guests visited the German Parliament, the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Press Conference. At the latter institution – which is organised by journalists – government spokespersons answer questions from the media at least three times a week. According to the German law, the government is obliged to deliver such information to the public. A visit to Germany’s biggest news site, Spiegel Online, gave rise to a discussion about the cornerstones of election reporting. Of course, Germany faces its own problems regarding the media, some of which were familiar to the guests from Myanmar, including how to continue financing journalism at a time when print media appears to be in decline.
One of the visitors, Thwe Myo Nyunt from People’s Age, also observed, “Germans also don’t have a solution about how to deal with the spread of rumours on social media.”

One highlight of the program was a public debate organized by The Taz. A well-informed Berlin audience sought the opportunity to get updates on various issues in Myanmar, including the likelihood that the 2015 election will be free and fair, working conditions for journalists, and the treatment of the Muslim minority in Rakhine State.

More information about Myanmar was left in the form of a Taz supplement that the Yangon journalists prepared during their stay.
Even though discussion was sometimes hard when there was no common basis of knowledge about the two countries, the tough program was appreciated by the participants.

It took Germany decades to build up its democracy and erase the effects of its past. “Coping with this did not mean remaining silent. It meant saying what had to be said,” explained a former inmate of the communist prison Hohenschönhausen. That is what a journalist’s job is all about, all over the world.

On November 2, the Myanmar journalists returned to their home country to continue their important work. One week later, on November 9, Germany commemorated the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the symbol of the country’s time under a communist dictatorship.