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As censorship eases in Burma and the press tastes long-suppressed freedom, exiled media groups are weighing up the risks of a return to cover the dramatic changes in their country from within.
Not long ago, working for one of them could result in a lengthy prison sentence if caught inside the army-dominated nation, but the past year’s political openings have turned recent pipe dreams into real ambitions.
Exiled reporting groups want permission to return to Burma, also known as Myanmar — but only when they are sure there will be no turning back on the new regime’s radical steps towards reforms.
“It is our dream to publish a publication or online magazine inside Burma. I hope it will happen soon,” said Aung Zaw, the founder of the Irrawaddy news Web site based in neighboring Thailand.
The journalist has just completed his first trip to Burma since he escaped after a popular uprising in 1988 was brutally crushed by the junta. This time, he came back charmed.
“I think the authorities will consider my proposal if we want to publish inside Burma,” he said.
Over the past year the government of former general Thein Sein, which took over from the junta in March, has overseen dramatic political reforms, including in the media.
Censorship, already softened, will supposedly disappear. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in late 2010, has crept on to the front pages, while exiled media Web sites are no longer blocked.
Even imprisoned journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma, a broadcasting group based in Oslo, were all released in January in a mass amnesty for political prisoners.
For the exiles, what remains is the strategic question of timing. According to Aung Zaw, senior journalists have suggested to the Irrawaddy to “remain here in Thailand until 2015” to ensure the reforms are well entrenched.
“Laws that restrict press freedom are still there,” so “it is too risky” for them to go back now, said Maung Maung Myint, chairman of the Burma Media Association based in Oslo, whose members are mostly exiled journalists.
In Burma’s capital of Naypyidaw, the Ministry of Information says that the way is clear. Ye Htut, the ministry’s director general, told AFP that there was “no restriction” on the media in exile.
“We only ask for fair and balanced reporting,” he said.
But the new press legislation under development is limited to print media. Even if the law enters into force, “pluralism and good practices will still be missing,” noted Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia bureau at media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris.
In terms of press freedom, Burma is still ranked just 169th among 179 countries, according to an index by RSF published in January.
Exiled media therefore have no choice but to take things step by step. The editor of Mizzima, a news agency based in India, told the Burma Times that, similar to the Irrawaddy, it was “ready to set up our office in Yangon.”
As for the DVB, the first step is “legalizing DVB’s operation in the country” and preventing further arrests, according to its deputy director Khin Maung Win.
The government is closely linked to the previous military rulers, who “treated DVB as the enemy,” he said.
Although the group is still considered illegal, the new regime has behaved differently, for example by accepting interview requests from DVB reporters.
Ultimately, the exiles’ return seems inevitable if decades of military rule really are consigned to the history books.
“The exiled Burmese media will simply fade away when Burma has become a truly democratic society,” said the Burma Media Association’s Maung Maung Myint.
Meanwhile, international donors who are increasingly tempted to favor projects inside the country must continue to support them, he argued.
“DVB donors are excited with the changes in Burma and like to switch their support to inside Burma, rather than outside,” said Khin Maung Win.
Whatever their future role, the contributions of these experienced English speakers will be crucial for a country where the main newspaper, The New Light of Burma, remains a dogmatic mouthpiece of the regime.
“They have said that they wanted us to do some training and introduce quality standards of journalism,” said Aung Zaw. “If they are serious, I’m ready.”