Democracy requires media freedom. An independent media sector is being built up in Burma, among other things, with Swedish assistance.
Photo: David Isaksson/Global Reporting
Unique conference – the beginnings of a free press in Burma?
For many years Sweden has supported the Burmese media which has operated in exile. Sweden is now contributing to an opening up of the media situation in the country. During a completely unique conference in Burma in March 2012, journalists who had returned to their home country and representatives of the government met for the first time.
The situation would have been completely unthinkable just a few months ago. On the rostrum stood a representative of the ruling government's Ministry of Information who talked with some degree of irony about the censorship that his government department was responsible for. Among the questioners were journalists who had been jailed or forced into exile more than twenty years ago. Several of them were now back in the country for the first time.
The purpose of the conference, funded by Sweden, Denmark and Norway, was to contribute to an opening in the Burmese media climate to lay the foundations for a discussion for a new media law. The conference was attended by leading Burmese journalists who have long been active in exile. One of them was Toe Zaw Latt, Bureau Chief at the Radio and TV station, the Democratic Voice of Burma in Thailand:
“This is the first time in 24 years that I am back in the country so it is fantastic! A year ago, what is now happening would have been unthinkable. That is why it is incredibly encouraging to be a part of what appears to be the beginning of a new era for press freedom in Burma,” says Toe Zaw Latt.
"Twenty years of military rule has resulted in Burma falling a long way behind in democratic development, compared with its neighbouring countries. If Burma is to catch up, development must take place quickly,” says Toe Zaw Latt.
“At the same time, what is now happening in the media is a change from the top down, and it will take time until what is being said here becomes reality. The biggest challenge is therefore to turn all these words into actions,” Toe Zaw Latt continues.
According to the Ministry of Information, a new media law will abolish censorship. An independent Press Council will be the media industry's self-regulatory body, certainly within specific limits. But so far, no details have been provided.
How much can we rely on what is being said, and is there a risk that all this talk about reform is just a smokescreen? During the conference, media experts and journalists from other parts of the world who shared their experiences on media development, press freedom issues and the training of journalists, also participated.
“It is apparent that the government wants to move the situation forward. My impression is that the liberal forces have developed a united front against the hard-liners in the government. For the liberals – who want everything to be open – this conference is a way to reposition,” said Johan Romare, Director of the Media Institute Fojo in Sweden who also took part in the conference.
Aung Zaw, Editor in Chief of Irrawaddy, a magazine that is published in exile, was also cautiously optimistic, while at the same time, warning that the regime does not want to see full freedom of the press. If anything, it is likely that there will be an attempt to "adapt" the Burmese press laws based on those in Singapore or another totalitarian state in Southeast Asia.
“But we can never accept that. Burma must receive full freedom of the press and nothing else!”
Bengt Ekman is responsible for Sida's programme for Burma. He regards the support for the conference as part of the Swedish work for democracy and freedom of expression:
“A free media is a key element in a democracy. That is why Sida has taken every opportunity to support the building of an independent media sector in Burma over the past few years,” says Bengt Ekman.
In addition to the media in exile, Sweden has also been able to support some media programmes in Burma. An example is the support given to the Yangon Film School, which in recent years has produced several internationally acclaimed documentary films, often focusing on daily life in Burma. Over the years, the Film School has contributed to the training of a new generation of young documentary film makers.
"Documentary films have not been subject to such stringent censorship, as with other media operations, at the same time as it is playing an important role in democratic societies. That is why it is a good feeling that we have been able to contribute to the development of operations,” continues Bengt Ekman.