Mar 122014

YANGON (March 9, 2014) – In a speech given in conjunction with the East-West Center’s International Media Conference on “Challenges of a Free Press” this week in Yangon, Myanmar, Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi today addressed press freedom issues in both emerging and developed democracies. (Watch the video of her talk.)

Photo: Allison Wrabel, Missouri School of Journalism

Click on the image to view the video
Photo: Allison Wrabel, Missouri School of Journalism

The democracy advocate, who spent years under political house arrest but is now an elected member of the national assembly, discussed how the media plays a key role in Myanmar’s political transition.

Noting that a long journey lies ahead for the country, she said: “We would like our media to help us in this quest to lay the foundations for a society, for a nation, which is not just for us, today, but for generations to come.”

Without a free press to check those who are in power, she said, “we will not be able to defend the rights and freedoms of the people. But at the same time, this press has to be aware not just of its great power and influence, but of the great responsibility that it bears for the building of a new nation that is centered on the will of the people.”

She cautioned that the press has an inherent obligation to its citizens and should not shirk its duties to the public. “Greater freedom demands greater responsibility,” she said. “It is one of my greatest concerns that people not look upon democracy as a system that gives unlimited rights to them but does not demand equal responsibility back.” Continue reading »

Mar 122014

YANGON (March 10, 2014) – U Ye Htut, Myanmar’s deputy minister of information and presidential spokesman, spoke to attendees of a landmark international media conference here on the evolution of the press in his country following ongoing political reforms. “It is the media that empowers citizens to make informed decisions, required to achieve democratic reforms in our society,” he said.

U Ye Htut

Photo by Ninh Pham, Missouri school of Journalism

U Ye Htut said Myanmar is becoming more open to the press, both foreign and domestic. He said more than 20 news agencies have opened up bureaus in the country, and that the first privately owned daily newspapers began appearing on newsstands last year after a more than 50-year absence.

He said Myanmar’s domestic media face a series of challenges, including continued mistrust between the government and the press.

“Most of the government ministries are reluctant to share their information with the press and the public,” he said. He noted his ministry is working with others in the government on developing guidelines for dealing with the media, and he hoped that increased transparency would alleviate that mistrust.

Another challenge, he said, is the scant opportunities for journalism training programs. He said that NGOs and various foreign governments are working with the media in Myanmar to develop training for young journalists to help improve the standard of journalism. Continue reading »

Mar 122014

Panelists at an East-West Center International Media Conference event recount tales of overcoming imprisonment, abuse and intimidation for their reporting

YANGON (March 10, 2014) – In the crackdown that followed a widespread 1988 uprising against repressive military rule in Myanmar, journalist U Win Tin was arrested, tortured and imprisoned for nearly 20 years before being released in 2008 amid sweeping reforms in the country.

Now in his eighties, U Win Tin was among a panel of journalists, all of whom had endured imprisonment, beatings or threats for their reporting, who addressed some 400 participants gathered for a keynote dinner on March 10 as part of the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Yangon this week. In a scene that would have been virtually unimaginable just a few years ago, he told the audience at a hotel ballroom that today, “we are trying for democratic change in this country, but the remnants of the military dictatorship remain in various forms.”

Choosing to speak through an interpreter, he said that “we have to fight against the remaining followers of the dictators. Only after that we can have a chance to march towards democracy.”

American reporter Roxana Saberi recounted the 101 days she spent in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison after being accused of spying in a case that received international media attention. Initially held in solitary confinement and denied outside contact, she was unaware of the outcry over her plight until she was finally allowed to mix with other prisoners who had heard of it.

Roxanna Saberi

Roxanna Saberi

While she was not physically tortured as many other prisoners were, she said, she did experience something known as “white torture,” which “doesn’t leave a mark on your body but it can devastate your mind and your conscience through a combination of threats and isolation, and making you do and say things that are designed to rob you of your dignity.”

Saberi said that during early days of her imprisonment she tried to think of inspirational prisoners of conscience like Mahatma Gandhi, “but then I thought, ‘Well, Gandhi was never jailed in Iran, and he would have been afraid too.”

In the end, she said, she drew courage from other women prisoners she met who were being punished for peacefully exercising their basic human rights. “One of the main lessons they taught me was to do what you think is right, to listen to your inner voice,” she said. “Tell the truth, because even if you may suffer, in the end you will prevail.”

“I realized that when we don’t have a voice, we need other people to speak out for us,” she said. “And when we do have a voice, we have this opportunity and responsibility to be a voice for the voiceless, and the media have a great power to do this.”

Pakistani journalist Umar Cheema

Umar Cheema

Umar Cheema from Pakistan recounted how in 2010, after reporting frequently on government officials’ misdeeds, he was abducted by intelligence agents, beaten with a wooden rod and leather strap, stripped naked and forced to pose in humiliating positions while his kidnappers took photographs and videos. “This is the consequences of writing against the government,” one of them told him.

After about eight hours, he said, he was dumped far outside Islamabad with a warning: “If you speak to the media about this incident, you will be picked up again, never to return, and your pictures and video will be posted to YouTube.” Even confronted with this threat, he decided to go public with his experience and continue his reporting, despite pleas from his family and friends to flee the country.

Cheema noted that his story is the story of many journalists in Pakistan. “It is a story of a country where you are free to speak, but at your own risk,” he said. “It is a story of a country where journalists are not sent to jail, but instead sent to graves, and their killers operate with impunity.”

Afghan journalist Najiba Ayubi, director of a nonprofit group of radio and magazine outlets based in Kabul, recounted how, after one of her radio stations reported on a gun battle in the city between the militias of two warlords-turned-members of parliament, she was called by a government minister who told her to stop the coverage, saying, “You are a woman – this is not good for you.”

Afghan journalist Najiba AyubiAfter she refused to stop the reporting, she said, some men came to her home later that day and banged loudly on the door asking for her. Telling what she said was the first lie of her life, she escaped by pretending from behind the door to be her mother, but she and her family spent several days worrying that the men would return. “This is one of those experiences that I had a lot,” she said. “Not one time, many times.”

Ayubi said that the journalism environment in her country has improved markedly in the last 12 years, with a proliferation of news outlets and the best media law in the region. “But self-censorship is a big problem,” she said. “Because of the lack of security and the powerful people (in control), there are many things we can’t talk about.”

“Being a woman journalist in Afghanistan is not easy,” Ayubi added, but she feels hopeful that both a free press and women’s rights will continue to increase in Afghanistan. “A lot of good changes have happened,” she said.

U Win TinThe journalists on the panel all agreed that by refusing to be silenced, they hoped that each act of courage would mark a step closer to a freer press, and subsequently freer societies.

In a moving conclusion to the evening, the entire audience sang “Happy Birthday” to U Win Tin, who was just a few days away from turning 84. Wearing a shirt that was the same shade of blue as his former prison uniform – a color he’s vowed to wear until every remaining political prisoner in Myanmar is freed – the still-active opposition organizer clasped his hands to his heart and beamed.

— Student journalist Jessica Anania of the Missouri School of Journalism contributed to this report. Photos by Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism.


Mar 122014

YANGON (March 11, 2014) – A panel of experts debated both the concept of peace journalism and its greater implications for covering worldwide and domestic conflict today during the East-West Center’s International Media Conference held this week in Yangon, Myanmar. The panel included the director of the University of Sydney’s Centre for Peace & Conflict Studies Jake Lynch, Indian freelance journalist Dilnaz Boga, Voice of America Burmese Service Chief Than Lwin Htun, and Aung Nang Oo of the Myanmar Peace Center. (Watch the video of the panel)

Than Lwin Htun_web

Than Lwin Htun

Throughout the panel, both Lynch and Boga argued for the necessity of peace journalism to better defuse violence and to understand conflict, such as the current ethnic violence in Myanmar described in a report by Than Lwin Htun. Aung Nang Oo remained critical of journalists throughout the discussion, noting that journalists’ lack of sensitivity regarding precarious peace negotiations could be destructive.

Lynch began the panel by outlining the definition of peace journalism, and drawing parallels between the necessity for peace journalism in covering Australia’s current treatment of asylum-seekers and in covering Myanmar’s ethnic violence in Rakhine state.

Continue reading »

Mar 122014

YANGON (March 10, 2014) — Defending strongly his belief that civic media is a powerful force in society, MIT Center for Civic Media Director Ethan Zuckerman spoke about the challenges and opportunities of public discourse media in a keynote speech at the 2014 East-West Center International Media Conference in Yangon, Myanmar. (Watch the video of the speech.)

Ethan Zuckerman

Photo: Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism

Starting with a discussion on the Internet, Zuckerman said that Myanmar is going through 20 years worth of changes, conversations and debates about it in two years. “There is a concern that the Internet could lead to hate speech, ethnic violence and conflict. But I think it is wonderful to have the chance to wrestle with these questions,” he said.

Zuckerman defined civic media as digital media used for constructive public dialogue, “and it is about trying to work with others for social change.” He said he thinks the Internet opens a space for debate and participation that is more inclusive than offline spaces.

He admitted, however, that extreme speech is a challenge of civic media. Shyamal Dutta, a Bangladeshi journalist, also brought up this concern during the question-and-answer session. “Social media will be used by people to promote extremism,” Zuckerman said. “We have to get smart and creative in our social media use to counter that kind of speech.” Continue reading »

Mar 122014

YANGON (March 12, 2014) – With a high-ranking Information Ministry official joining them, a panel of local journalists said today at the final session of the East-West Center’ International Media Conference in Yangon that they are that they are cautiously hopeful about the future of media in Myanmar, although challenges remain. (Watch video of the panel.)

DSC_5671BU Ye Htut, Deputy Minister of Information and presidential spokesman, who stayed to attend the entire conference after delivering a keynote speech on the first day, also joined the panel and said that media in Myanmar must focus on editorial independence in an environment where he said many media owners attempt to manipulate the reporting. “We want the diversity of ownership, and we want the diversity of information in our country,” he said.

With many news organizations concentrated in larger cities, like Yangon and Mandalay, the media must not forget to cover news at the state level, he said. One challenge he sees for the media is changing the mindsets of the people in regars to the difference between state-owned and public service media.

Chit Win Maung, adviser to MRTV4 Newsroom and member of the Myanmar Press Council, spoke about the changes in the media landscape. “Now we have the freedom of the press, but there are still challenges,” Chit Win Maung said.

The first significant change Myanmar journalists experienced was the abolishment of official pre-publication censorship, he said. Following that, privately owned daily newspapers were allowed to publish for the first time in decades, another adjustment for local journalists.

DSC_5774Ye Naing Moe, director of Yangon Journalism School, said while he could not predict the future, he is hoping for the best. “It is quite as unpredictable as Korean soap operas,” Ye Naing Moe said. “Everyone expects a happy ending, so we expect a happy ending, too.”

The government and the media must complete two tasks to reach such an outcome, he said. The current and future governments should encourage ministries to cooperate with journalists, respecting the public’s right to information, he said. Journalists should also promote investigative reporting, because many people suffered under the previous government’s policies, Ye Naing Moe said.

Swe Win, a freelance journalist in Yangon, agreed with U Ye Htut that the main issue for Myanmar media today is the editorial influence of the media business owners. Another concern he raised was the social insensitivity of current journalists, and their failure to cover key issues of ethnic violence and discrimination, especially concerning the minority Rohingya Muslim community in Rakhine state.

“We should have no doubt about the newsworthiness of human rights violations,” Swe Win said. The obstacles in front of Myanmar journalists are ones “we impose upon ourselves, our ignorance of our duties as journalists,” he said.

Reporting by Cara McClain & photos by Allison Wrabel, Missouri School of Journalism

Mar 112014

YANGON (March 11, 2014) – Journalism executives and educators discussed how to sustain media businesses in the U.S. and Asia during a keynote luncheon today the East-West Center’s international media conference.

U Ko Ko, Pana Janviroj, Zafar Abbas

Zafar Abbas, Pana Janviroj, U Ko Ko

Randall Smith, business journalism professor from the Missouri School of Journalism, moderated the discussion.

“What the media has to do these days, in my opinion, is go back to business school,” Smith said. He said media organizations should align their content with what their customers want. In the U.S., niche markets are key to successful media businesses. The danger lies in those businesses with only one or two revenue streams, Smith said.

“The good news is the world still is flat,” Smith said. “It will always be flat, and good ideas are coming from everywhere.”

Pana Janviroj, executive director of Asia News Network based in Bangkok, Thailand, said the primary issue for young journalists of Myanmar is the expectations of quick development, not a lack of money.

“The journalists, they make mistakes,” Janviroj said. “The newspapers sometimes sensationalize, but it is one in one thousand stories.”

Janviroj said the mistakes and biases in the reporting result from the the poor education system in Myanmar for the last 50 years, as well as the youth of most reporters here.

U Ko Ko, chairman of Yangon Media Group, said the lack of skilled journalists is one of the biggest challenges the Myanmar media face. Referencing Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech on March 9, he said local journalists need training and learn how to balance the new press freedoms with responsibility.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Zaffar Abbas, Editor-In-Chief of Dawn in Karachi, Pakistan, said hearing many emphasize “responsible journalism” during the conference had disturbed him. That phrase implies that “somebody is trying to control your way of doing journalism, your way of reporting,” he said.

Facing increasing production costs and decreasing advertising revenue, he said credible, ethical journalism is the best business model to increase circulation.

U Ko Ko said the media environment in Myanmar faces tight competition. Ten privately owned newspapers divide up the market into smaller portions of profit. He acknowledged that the introduction of two new telecommunication companies in Myanmar by the end of the year should allow people to connect to those far away. Some solutions U Ko Ko said the most important steps he sees for Myanmar media are to develop mobile platforms and work with foreign partners.

“I don’t have a solution,” U Ko Ko said. “I am asking for a solution from all of my friends.”

– Reporting by Cara McClain & photos by Ninh Pham, Missouri School of Journalism