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Media outlets and civil society groups discussed how to promote ethnic news organisations as the country’s media landscape continues to rapidly change during a groundbreaking conference in the Mon state capital Moulmein over the weekend.
“The Strengthening of Ethnic Voices in Democratic Media Reform” conference was the first such meeting to take place inside Burma that brought together the numerous ethnic-based news groups to discuss their field.
“[It] was a good opportunity for the ethnic media to share with each other”, said Burma News International (BNI) development secretary Khin Maung Shwe, whose organisation helped plan the event.
The conference also discussed how the various ethnic media outlets could “broaden their scope” and implement strategies to enhance their presence in the country.
“This is important because most of the ethnic media’s coverage is localised,” said Khin Maung Shwe.
About 150 people, including journalists from 35 different media outlets, civil society groups, opposition parties and government officials, including the Mon state Chief Minister Ohn Myint, participated in the conference.
For some of the attendees, the conference provided them with the opportunity to visit the country after decades in exile.
Network Media Group’s director Aung Moe Myint said he had fears of being arrested upon arrival at Rangoon airport after 25 years of exile. Instead he found himself dining with government officials during the conference, which still left him somewhat nervous.
Despite the optimistic atmosphere, attendees voiced their concerns about anticipated difficulties that are bound to arise in Burma’s still nascent media sector.
“People say it’s booming but the advertising revenue is not so big, and distribution is an issue,” said Myint Kyaw from the Myanmar Journalist Network and Interim Press Council, who noted that many people in the country are still unable to afford newspapers.
According to Myint Kyaw, state mouthpieces The New Light of Myanmar and the Mirror, which were the only legal dailies allowed to print until earlier this month, still have “all the advertising”.
Furthermore, the government has yet to develop any initiatives that would support the development of independent ethnic media, according to Myint Kyaw.
“I put in 500,000 Kyats. Everyone involved puts in the same amount. It keeps going, but we lose money every issue,” said Min Latt, an editor for the Mon state-based Than Lwin Times.
“But we still have enough to keep running for three or four issues.”
Min Latt says he uses his own camera, computer and pays the internet bill out of pocket to help keep the 32-page (four which of are in the Mon language) bimonthly journal afloat.
Since founding the Than Lwin Times, the editor says that Mon businessmen are eager to invest in the journal, but he remains cautious and wants to make sure that the “news is never overshadowed by business interests”.
State-sponsored media need to restrain their content so they don’t make their sponsors unhappy, but if you’re independent “you can keep your dignity”, says Min Latt.
During the conference, state officials unveiled the government’s new plans to promote ethnic-based news coverage.
The Ministry of Information’s deputy minister Aung Nai Oo said state broadcaster MRTV is in the process of hiring and training production teams that are tasked with creating content in ethnic languages and expanding coverage in Burma’s seven ethnic states.
However, some attendees remain sceptical of the government’s ability to provide objective coverage of ethnic issues.
“They are trying to transform their programming content, but we will have to wait and see if they will really become public service media as they say,” said Myint Kyaw.
According to conference attendees, after the deputy minister delivered his presentations, he did not stay to listen to the other speakers.
Following the military coup in 1962, private papers were prevented from being published in ethnic languages; however the government has continued to broadcast propaganda in ethnic languages.