The Burmese are a newspaper-reading people, but during 50 years of military rule, censorship prevailed and there was no free scrutinizing media. When, after the 2011 elections, the regime began to be more open to reforms and democracy, it became easier for journalists to work in Myanmar. The Burmese newspaper Irrawaddy was able to report from inside the country after 20 years in exile.
Irrawaddy’s editorial office is in a centrally located high-rise, with a view of the bustling crowds in the capital city of Yangon. After many years of a harsh media climate, it is still not easy for a newspaper to work in the country and in the lobby on the first floor there are no signs to indicate that the editorial staff is housed right there,out of fear of reprisals. In the newspaper’s office, on the eighth floor, the journalists sit together around a large oblong desk. On the walls, a number of “dummies”, colour printed pages for the next issue and political satire drawings are hanging.
The editorial staff has felt at home there for quite some time, but despite the newspaper having been founded in 1992, the staff has only had permission to work in Myanmar since 2012.
Aung Zaw is Irrawaddy’s founder and Editor in Chief, but the path to journalism was not an obvious one, as he actually had intended to become a biologist. But, during university studies in Yangon, he began associating with students that often discussed politics and he became increasingly aware and critical of the military regime.
Three days after the student riots in 1988, Aung Zaw fled Myanmar and began living in exile in Thailand, going underground from both the Burmese and Thai secret police.
“People were keen to read about the developments in Myanmar, which was a closed country at the time. I wanted to report on political developments, especially for a foreign readership, which is why we began writing in English. We had very limited resources in the beginning. There were two of us, who started working on the newspaper and I had an old computer given to me by a friend in Singapore and a computer screen from another friend,” says Aung Zaw.
The newspaper reached its foreign readers and was smuggled over the border to readers in Myanmar. Exile media was an important part of the independent news sources and ever increasing numbers wanted to see the articles, despite there being great risks if caught with a copy of the newspaper.
Irrawaddy began publishing an online newspaper in 2000 and as it was complicated to work out of Bangkok, the editorial moved closer to Myanmar, to Chiang Mai.
In 2011, the first parliamentary elections were held in Myanmar since 1990, and the situation for the media began to ease. Aung Zaw was beginning to be able to cross the border into Myanmar again. First, he was given a five-day visa and was able to visit his country for the first time, after all the years in exile; two months later, he returned again.
Prior censorship of printed media was abolished in 2012 and, after a break of nearly 50 years, privately owned daily newspapers were once again allowed. That same year, Irrawaddy was granted permission to openly work with and publish the newspaper. Today, Aung Zaw commutes between Yangon and Chiang Mai each week.
“Today, the Burmese media has greater freedom on what they can write about, but we walk a tightrope and have to be careful at times. Even if the restrictions have been lifted, we still face many challenges, restrictions and visa problems. The Information Ministry continues to tell us to abstain from writing texts and chronicles and publishing cartoons and caricatures of our highest political leaders,” says Aung Zaw.
The newspaper’s management has decided to keep a part of the editorial staff in Chiang Mai as a backup in the event anything should happen and the situation deteriorate.
Despite the new, more open Myanmar, it is difficult to work in the country; the authorities put roadblocks in the way and try to exert pressure to make the newspaper change its name*, and they have only given a five-year publication license. In addition, Irrawaddy has been cyber attacked, where some individual inserted articles into the newspaper’s website that were completely erroneous.
“Our reporters and photographers are under threat, but we remain firmly determined to defend and maintain our independence. My job is to deliver the truth to the people,” says Aung Zaw.
He emphasizes that the newspaper will not be a mouthpiece for either the government or its opposition and that the journalists consider their work to be on behalf of their readers.
“If the government really is democratic and respects freedom of the press and freedom of speech, then they should be proud that we are now back in the country, in as we are here to monitor the political transition and not to become commercial media.
* Irrawaddy is the name of the large river that is Myanmar’s main artery and runs through the entire country.