The challenges of reporting on Myanmar

In this interview with Mumbrella Asia editor Robin Hicks, Melbourne-born journalist Jessica Mudditt talks about the challenges of reporting on a country that is – in fits and starts – loosening its grip on press freedom after decades of oppression.

What’s the hardest thing about reporting on Myanmar?

For me, it’s the lack of data available. Previous military regimes appear to have had zero interest in obtaining information about the people of Myanmar (other than for intelligence purposes!). A census hasn’t been conducted in more than 30 years, so even something as straightforward as the total population of Myanmar is merely an estimate, and the estimates vary quite a lot from organisation to organisation. And because Myanmar was a closed country for so long, the research that would normally have been amassed by civil society groups such as INGOs simply didn’t exist until recently. This makes it difficult to identify trends and changes in society, which is what makes an article or an angle robust. For example, when I wrote about women working in the “grey area” of the commercial sex industry, such as at massage parlours and karaoke lounges, there simply wasn’t any data available about the number of women engaged in such work.



So it’s often quite time consuming just to gather enough anecdotal material to find an angle worth pitching to an editor. Another problem is that although government ministries are now actively collecting data and are usually very glad to share it with journalists, very little of it is available online.

There are journalists from all over the world piling into Myanmar now that restrictions on international journalists have relaxed (and it’s a hot story). How do you feel the foreign media reports on Myanmar compare to local press?

There are certainly far more foreign journalists coming to Myanmar than ever before – since establishing the Myanmar Foreign Correspondents’ Club just over a year ago, we now have more than 220 members.

But perhaps we shouldn’t speak too soon about the relaxing of restrictions on foreign journalists – last week it was reported that the Ministry of Information has cut the length of journalist visas (which only came into existence last year – prior to that there was only business and tourist visas available) to 28 days instead of up to six months. This will make it extremely difficult for foreign journalists to base themselves here full-time, as the ministry also said it will no longer allow journalists to renew their visa from inside Myanmar. It’s still unclear whether the ministry is only targeting those who work at formerly exiled media groups, such as DVB and Irrawaddy – whom the government invited to set up bureaus in Yangon last year – or whether it will be a blanket restriction on all foreign journalists. However some say it may only be temporary – we’ll have to wait and see.

The greatest polarity I see between local and foreign media reports is the way that the sectarian violence between Buddhist and Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State is covered. As a Burmese friend said to me recently, “Local media supports the [Buddhist] majority, while foreign media supports the minorities.” In Burmese language newspapers and a couple of English ones, the Rohingya are referred to as “Bengalis”, because the official line (and also sadly the populist one) is that they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. It’s an extremely sensitive issue.

By contrast, foreign media agencies have published justifiably damning reports about what’s happening to the Rohingya people, who are officially stateless and live in IDP camps. Many believe that the ministry restricted visas as a knee-jerk reaction to reports by AP and Irrawaddy about the massacre of 48 Rohingya Muslims in Rakhine State by Buddhist extremists in January. The Ministry of Information summoned AP staff in for a rebuking, saying its report was false – and the visa announcement came shortly afterwards.

I’d also say that the adoration for Aung San Suu Kyi is widespread in local media, whereas foreign media has become quite critical of late – perhaps to the point of over-simplifying her situation as a politician in the “new” Myanmar.

Another difference is that as my Burmese colleagues have told me, Burmese papers sometimes present rumour and gossip as an established fact. This is a problem because it can have a terrible impact on the people it misrepresents, but it’s a symptom of the fact that journalism in Myanmar was of the state-run variety for decades, and there are no training schools for journalists as yet. However the Interim Myanmar Press Council is pushing to introduce a new media law that would make journalists accountable to a code of ethics, which may come into effect this year.

What would you say it the biggest story in Myanmar at the moment? The call to change the constitution (that would give Aung San Suu Kyi a path to power) or ethnic conflict?

Opening up: The proliferation of media in the new "open" Myanmar

Opening up: The proliferation of media in the new “open” Myanmar

Constitutional reform, ethnic conflicts and land confiscations have been the big stories for many months now. But in the past couple of weeks or so, it’s been the restrictions on press freedom that have dominated headlines. Four journalists and the CEO of the Burmese language weekly newspaper, Unity Journal, were arrested and charged under the State Secrets Act for a report about an alleged chemical weapons factory in central Myanmar. In December, a journalist called Ma Khine from Eleven Media became the first journalist to be imprisoned in Myanmar since the end of military rule – her beat was corruption. It’s very worrying.

The upcoming census is another hot story. The government officially recognises 135 “national races” (which obviously excludes the Rohingya), but many ethnic minority groups dispute that figure. Some say it’s been inflated as part of a “divide and rule” tactic, and that sub-tribes were “recognised” purely on the basis of geographic location or dialect. There’s also some in-fighting over terminology among the ethnic groups themselves, and some are calling for the census to be delayed, including the Burma Campaign UK.

Which newspaper would you say is doing the best job of reflecting the modern, contemporary Myanmar in its reporting?

I admire the depth of coverage in Irrawaddy’s reports and the many fascinating stories it picks up on. While Eleven Media is right-wing in its opinions, it breaks news faster than any other media outlet.

I work two shifts a week at Myanma Freedom Daily, which is the only daily English language newspaper, other than the state-run New Light of Myanmar. It’s a small team, but everyone works really hard to get the paper out each day and many of our reports are exclusives. Our editor-in-chief, Thiha Saw, is a former political prisoner who is passionate about exposing injustice and making the government accountable. Myanma Freedom also gives generous coverage to the issues affecting ethnic minorities, which tend to go unheard in other local (Burmese language) dailies. Former exile media groups DVB and Mizzima are also highly recommended because of their relentless pursuit of the truth; a reputation they’ve cultivated over many years.

A lot of the modern Myanmar is about business, trade and investment – the best source for obtaining such information is the bilingual weekly newspaper, Myanmar Business Today (full disclosure – my husband is MBT’s editor-in-chief, but with a circulation of around 66,000, its influence can’t be denied).

I hear that local journalists are harder and more critical of the government in their reporting than foreign reporters. Would you agree?

No I wouldn’t, though of course it depends on the individual and the publication in question. Due to decades of oppression under a military regime, a culture of asking tough questions to people in positions of power hasn’t developed. In fact, a Burmese journalist once told me that there is a set format of questions and answers that journalists pose to ministers – and that the questions and answers are always the same and very general in nature, regardless of who is being interviewed and what the interview is meant to be about. That said, there are some extremely courageous Burmese reporters and I think it’s the editors at various newspapers that set the tone for how critical a reporter can be. I know of some that are steadfast in their unwillingness to rock the boat…

Journalism in the West, on the other hand, can be quite a blood sport, in part because journalists have no fear of being sent to prison for writing a report deemed critical of so and so. Freelancers who come to Myanmar with a gung-ho attitude may find that they need to adopt a more subtle approach to keep themselves out of hot water (or just to get their questions answered!). However foreign reporters who are based in Myanmar may feel wary of jeopardising their visa situation by being overly critical of the government. I can’t say this hasn’t ever crossed my own mind.

I’ve also heard that there’s a lot of self-censorship in the reportage, because not long ago journalists were not as free as they are now and old habits die hard. Would you agree?

Certainly. Pre-publication censorship was only lifted in 2012, so it will take time – and further assurances from the government – that self-censorship is unnecessary. As recent events show, Myanmar still lacks a free press. My former co-editor at The Myanmar Times was once brought in for an interrogation session with the censorship board because instead of writing “chess competition” he’d written “chest competition.” Though amusing to look back on, it goes to show how severe the restrictions and consequences were. Even topics such as poverty were off-limits. The military government simply denied that it existed.

Do you think that Myanmar’s lowly position on the Reporters without Borders index is justified at the moment? Come next year, will it have risen or fallen, in your view?

As you know, just last week the 2014 World Press Freedom Index by Reporters Without Borders ranked Myanmar ahead of Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, which is an impressive achievement considering how recently Myanmar’s democratic reforms began. Myanmar is now ranked 145thout of 180, whereas last year it was deservedly ranked 151st. However the 2014 index was compiled before the journalists from Unity Journal were imprisoned – it would be interesting to know how that would have affected Myanmar’s ranking.

I think the general election of 2015 will be a pivotal moment for press freedom in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), is still immensely popular and most assume it will win (yet again). Regardless of whether Aung San Suu Kyi were to lead the party as president – though I hope she will – I believe the NLD would introduce greater press freedoms and under their leadership, Myanmar could even become Southeast Asia’s beacon of democracy. However when I say this to other journalists, I’m often told I’m being far too optimistic!

How do you see journalism developing in Myanmar over the next few years, the way things are going?

It’s hard to say. If the Interim Press Council’s media bill is passed, as opposed to the far more restrictive bill drafted by the Ministry of Information, there could be a real blossoming of free and fair reportage. However there are still some powerful hardliners who would prefer to return to the days of the past, and who strongly resent being criticised by the media. As unelected military representatives are allocated 25 percent of parliamentary seats, there is still a real risk of backsliding in terms of press freedoms unless constitutional reform is made.

However journalists’ salaries, which can be as low as US$150 a month, need to be increased in order to attract talented young people into the profession. Many are still opting to work abroad or embark on a career in business for purely financial reasons, and this is a real shame.

Jessica Mudditt is sub-editor of privately owned Burmese national paper Myanma Freedom Daily, and a freelance journalist who writes about Myanmar for The Bangkok Post,  IRIN News, DVB and Mizzima. She also runs her own blog, jessicamudditt.com.


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