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Development Angels Seize Opportunity, Bring Skills

Capacity building is the major fixture of media development agencies. International organizations tout accessible and objective news and information as essential for functioning democracies and generously support efforts to upgrade skills. Authoritarian rulers understand this and put up stiff resistance. Training people to report, write and deliver news is mildly threatening. Teaching the trade of sustainable business for media outlets changes the game.

Myanmar DJMedia freedom monitors have long kept a watchful eye, as best they could, on Burma, also known as Myanmar. The ruling military junta has kept a thumb on newspapers, broadcast outlets and, more recently, online services. The government announced a transition to democracy at the beginning of this decade followed by relaxed internet access and officially ended censorship, shelving required pre-publication approval. News outlets separate from official government agencies appeared. Elections held in November, enthusiastically reported by western news outlets, indicate that transition moves forward, however cautiously.

Since the end of official censorship Burmese media support groups have organized an annual media development conference with many well-known international agencies participating. The fourth conference, branded New Dynamics in Myanmar Media, was held in Yangon December 10th and 11th. The Myanmar Ministry of Information (MOI) also lended its support.

Indeed, outgoing Minister of Information Ye Htut was a featured speaker. He told those assembled he hoped the in-coming National League for Democracy party (NLD) government fronted by Aung San Suu Kyi would not do away with the ministry, reported English-language Myanmar Times (December 11). He also said legislation on radio and TV broadcasting meant to delay the end of State media control, debated since June, will be “left to the next government.” During his tenure “prolific social media” user Ye Htut was referred to as Minister for Facebook. Recent estimates show four million Facebook users in Burma.

Coinciding with the Yangon conference Media Development Investment Fund (MDIF) announced a capacity building program for independent media outlets funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). The goal of the three-year program is developing sustainability within private-sector news media. (See MDIF statement here) “For domestic media to effectively promote democracy, human rights and development, they need to be sustainable without undue dependence on forms of funding that may risk compromising their editorial independence,” said Swedish embassy development counsellor David Holmertz, representing SIDA.

Challenges for news media in Burma are, obviously, many. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) has begun training monitors ahead of a year-long project to tackle hate speech. The monitors will “engage with those who – whether accidentally or deliberately – promote misinformation and incite fear or hatred of particular groups in Burma,” noted IWPR’s website. The group will publish findings and commentary in Burmese and English bi-monthly. “The fact that personal safety and security formed a key part of the training, and that our colleagues will have to adopt pen-names when they go online as part of this project, is a very sad indication of how things presently stand,” said IWPR Asia Director Alan Davis.

Lending institutional support, Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS) assisted in creating the Myanmar Journalism Institute (MJI) in 2014. Swedish Linneaus University’s Fojo Media Institute, a well established professional training organization, participated in setting up the MJI, offering full and part-time diplomas. Training programs for State radio and TV, largely production techniques, have been provided since 2009 through Myanmar Media Development Center, an initiative of intergovernmental agency Asia-Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD).

State-owned media continues dominant in Burma, certainly on traditional platforms, less so online. Privately owned newspapers and broadcast outlets have been licensed, most proprietors closely aligned with government figures. Estimates indicate television reaches 45% of Burmese and 35% have internet access.

Major media freedom watchers have favorably noted, more or less, the democratic transition in Burma. Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF) placed press freedom at 144th globally in 2015 - slightly better than Bangladesh and Malaysia but worse than Indonesia and Cambodia - from 174th in 2010, nearly the bottom. The Freedom House 2015 press freedom index ranked Myanmar at 161st in the world, tied with Libya and Egypt, considerably improved from 194th in 2010, only North Korea being worse.

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