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Myanmar Newsrooms: Proving Grounds for Nascent Freedoms

March 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ahead of a landmark election in Myanmar, special correspondent Kira Kay and producer Jason Maloney report on the notoriously repressive country's first steps toward greater freedoms for the press and political activism with a look at the inner workings and goals of the Eleven Media Group's newsroom.

JEFFREY BROWN: Next tonight, our second report on the political and social openings in the Asian nation of Burma, also known as Myanmar.

Today, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi complained of irregularities ahead of this weekend’s elections. At the same time, beyond political competition, Burmese are starting to build other elements of a democratic society.

Our story comes from special correspondent Kira Kay and producer Jason Maloney.

KIRA KAY: It’s the beginning of another busy day for the young Burmese journalists who make up the staff of the Eleven Media Group.

The morning editorial meeting looks like one at any other newspaper in the world. Written copy is fact-checked, layouts are finalized, cub reporters are given their beat assignments. But this newsroom is a proving ground for nascent freedoms in the notoriously repressive country of Burma.

Also known as Myanmar, Burma has been ruled by a military dictatorship for half-a-century. Its leaders, suspicious of the outside world, viewed information as something to be restricted. The Eleven newspaper is forbidden by the government from publishing daily.

MAN: Under control of the government.

KIRA KAY: Under control of the government?

MAN: Not allowed.

KIRA KAY: They tell you only once a week?

MAN: Yes.

KIRA KAY: So the editors here print under two slightly different titles to get around the prohibition.

But, in recent months, reformers in the government, including a new president, started to relax the country’s tight media controls.

Than Htut Aung is Eleven Media’s founder and publisher.

THAN HTUT AUNG, chairman, Eleven Media Group (through translator): Changes have really come about within a year. It was entirely impossible for us to talk to you one year ago, because we had to fear everything then.

We were concerned not only about the news we were going to publish, but also about the news already published, even if it got past the censorship board. We were concerned about unfair legal charges. Now government pressure has relatively subsided.

KIRA KAY: Eleven Media has firsthand experience with harsh repression. In 2003, an editor was sentenced to death over a story alleging misuse of an international grant. The sentence was later commuted to three years in prison.

As recently as November 2010, the paper was banned from publishing for two weeks because of this sneaky headline heralding Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest with the words “Su free, unite and advance to grab the hope” hidden in a sports headline.

While the censor board still rejects coverage of some topics, especially articles critical of the military, the paper has been able to openly report on Aung San Suu Kyi’s current campaign for parliament. And reporters energetically delve into investigations, today preparing a story about concerns in the maritime testing process.

WOMAN (through translator): The system can be changed, but it is so entrenched.

KIRA KAY: In a sign of wider change, Burmese exile media groups have been allowed to return to the country to report, and some have applied to set up their own bureaus.

Eleven’s editors are optimistic restrictions will be further relaxed and are hiring new reporters to meet the demand.

Twenty-year-old Aung Zaw Tun was so eager to become a journalist, he first took a job as a driver for the newspaper while waiting for a reporter slot to open.

AUNG ZAW TUN, reporter, Eleven Media Group (through translator): I didn’t have a chance to learn about the politics and history of our country. I wish to raise these topics so that people have a greater understanding of these issues. Within the past year, local media have had an increased chance to cover these issues. That’s why I joined this department.

KIRA KAY: Despite this enthusiasm, publisher Than Htut Aung warns that, until Burma’s government rewrites its current media laws, it will be too soon to call his industry free.

THAN HTUT AUNG (through translator): Our freedom is only 20 percent or 30 percent by international standards. We still have repressive laws, such as the defamation law, national security act, and now the latest electronics act, which can send us to jail for accepting or responding to a sensitive email. With the continued existence of such laws, there is no chance for us to carry out free and independent reporting.

KIRA KAY: Burma is one of the poorest countries in Asia, with a dismal human rights record and ongoing internal ethnic conflicts. Civil society will have tremendous work to do to ensure the government’s tentative steps towards freedom are solidified into a democratic system.

In this unassuming house, former political prisoners are strategizing their return to civic activism. As part of its reform agenda, the Burmese government has released hundreds of political prisoners in recent months, including members of the so-called 88 Generation, leaders of the 1988 student uprisings that were crushed when the military gunned down thousands of democracy protesters.

Ko Ko Gyi was first arrested soon after those protests.

KO KO GYI, former political prisoner: And then 2007 to 2012, nearly four-and-a-half years, altogether, 18 years in prison. I cannot mention prison life, so nobody wants to hear the prison life, just full of suffering a lot.

KIRA KAY: Since his release in January of this year, Ko Ko Gyi and his 88 Generation colleagues have initiated campaigns for environmental and human rights.

KO KO GYI: We want to deal with the grassroots level, so these are the victims of the arms conflict. Some of the infants are born in a refugee camp.

KIRA KAY: But there’s a debate within the 88 Generation group whether its efforts should be limited to independent activism, or if it’s soon going to be time for a political campaign.

What would your choice be?

KO KO GYI: Yes. On my behalf, I want to engage in politics.

KIRA KAY: Do you think the government is ready to let you do this?

KO KO GYI: Yes, I hope so, because they realize, if they want to develop economically or socially our country, they need to cooperate the democratic forces, especially Aung San Suu Kyi and our 88 Generation groups.

KIRA KAY: Still, Ko Ko Gyi is cautious, not least because he and the other released political prisoners remain under suspended sentence and could be rearrested at any time if they overstep boundaries.

KO KO GYI: Some of my interviews have been cut off by some procedures or some restrictions by the censorship. So, how to believe their intention to change? Just a little doubt, I have — suffer from.

KIRA KAY: One key to expanding civil society will be training and educating the younger generation, a particular challenge given that Burma’s education system is severely neglected.

The Central Yangon University campus has been shuttered for years for fear of student protests. Study of political science was suspended after 1988. Rising to meet this challenge is Myanmar Egress, a five-year-old skills training program. Myanmar Egress has been able to offer political science classes to students under the more innocuous title of social entrepreneurship.

Still, the content is surprisingly bold.

MAN (through translator): Something democracy can bring to Burmese society is open public debate. What is open public debate?

MAN (through translator): It means an open exchange of discussions and arguments.

WOMAN: I want to work for my country as a policy-maker.

KIRA KAY: Twenty-seven-year-old Mon is aiming for a future as an economic researcher. She and the other students here were eager to practice their English with me and share their optimism about changes in Burma.

THURA ZAW, Burma: It is not totally changed, but this is a transition period. So it is starting to move our country. This is the first step, I think so.

SWAN LIN HTET, Burma: In the past, we have no — we have no chance to impress our feelings to the public. Now we can.

MAN: We want democracy. Now we are starting the democracy trend, so all people are really, really happy, really willing to develop our country more and more for the long term.

KIRA KAY: Even as Burmese vote this weekend in the closest thing to a real election in decades, with Aung San Suu Kyi and her allies possibly entering parliament, the bigger and deeper challenge will be creating and sustaining civil society groups and media organizations to bolster the fragile gains of freedom.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kira’s report was a production of the Bureau for International Reporting.