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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 3/18/15

Burma: "Sustaining Ethnic Media" via "Third Ethnic Media Conference"

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Burma News International (BNI) is going to launch its third ethnic media conference in Hakha, the capital of Chin State in Myanmar/Burma. This time the theme of the conference is "Sustaining Ethnic Media all through Democratic Transition in Myanmar". BNI will launch the conference in cooperation with the Chin Media Network, the Khonumthung News and the Chin World News.

Its first EMC was successfully held in Mawlamyine of Mon State and the second was taken place in Taung-gyi of Shan State. The first conference was launched with the theme of "Strengthening of Ethnic Voice in Myanmar" and the second event was under the theme of "Building Networks among Ethnic Media in Myanmar".

BNI is a network of independent media organizations from Burma or Myanmar that upholds journalistic ethics and promotes media freedom while providing reliable, accurate, and balanced daily news from the country's different regions and diverse ethnic people to local, regional, and international communities.

It was established in 2003 with four Burmese news organizations based in the western border of Burma, India and Bangladesh. It was later expanded, with other Burmese news organizations based in Thailand and the Thai-Burma border areas joining in. At present, it has thirteen independent Burma media/news organizations as members. They are Mizzima News, Narinjara News, Kaladan Press, Karen Information Center, Khonumthung News, Network Media Group, Independent Mon News Agency, Shan Herald Agency for News, Phop Htaw News, Than Lwin Times, Kantarawaddy Times, Kachin News Group and Chin World news media.

The BNI aims to promote Burma related news and reports in South Asia and South East Asia. It also serves as a bridge for mutual-understanding, sharing experiences, expertise and resources and cooperation among the Independent Burma Media Organizations.BNI is also an affiliated organization of Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA) which is a non-profit, non-governmental organization campaigning for genuine press freedom in Southeast Asia.

Freedom of the press is the basic right of citizens of all nations. The right of every citizen to read news is clearly similar to free flow of information including freedom of news production, speech and writing. Particularly in independent societies, freedom of the press means the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the government.

At some points in the recent years in Burma/Myanmar, the dissolution of press censorship, permitting private newspapers and creation of an Interim Press Council are signs of progress concerning freedom of the press. It is remarkable that the President acknowledges the major role of the media as the fourth estate, in his official speeches.

Under the military authoritarianism, the previous regime limited ethnic citizens' rights including racial languages and literature. This restriction has made end result upon the succeeding generations incapable of speaking or writing own languages. Even nowadays, publishers or media groups need authorization so as to publish in ethnic languages. Most ethnic journalists especially members of the Burma News International (BNI) have agreed to lift the government restrictions upon all racial languages in favor of freedom of the ethnic media. In addition, the government must have a decision of elevating ethnic media to get to sustained point.

Myanmar is an odd location to hold a seminar on the theme of media freedom and progress, by reason of press freedom. Over five decades under its military regimes, media in Myanmar run under a system of severe censorship namely Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, by which all printed media had to be put forward to PSRD before hitting newsstands. The pre-censorship ruling effectively formed government domination with strict control on the information flows. The system was formally abolished, but still today, the government maintains tough control over the media.

To date, Myanmar media outlets require licenses from the Ministry of Information before they can publish, meaning the government can issue and revoke publishing licenses according to its own will.

However, the improvement towards media freedom in Myanmar has been recognized internationally. In 2015, Myanmar ranked 145 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders (RWB) Press Freedom Index, 6 places higher than the previous year. The incumbent government has made 6-place progress because it makes some free space for coming back of several exiled media groups including BNI-membership ethnic media outlets such as Mizzima News, Narinjara News, Karen Information Center, Khonumthung News, Independent Mon News Agency, Shan Herald Agency for News etc.

However, sudden about turn policies of the current government, elected in 2010 after five-decade of military dictatorship, seem uncertain that the new direction is neither indisputable nor undeviating. Situations seem even trickier than past four years. The reason is that the state owned media industries do better than the ethnic media groups in profit-making via media businesses. Because the state media dig up financial supports from government, while the ethnic media groups never have financial and moral supports from the government. It looks as if government uncared progress of ethnic media news production as well as local-language news. The ethnic media groups are struggling for survival due to lack of financial supports and legal protection by the government.

Apart from Burmese or Myanmar, there are seven other major ethnic groups -- Chin, Kachin, Karenni (or Kayah), Karen (or Kayin), Mon, Arakan (or Rakhine) and Shan -- and a hundred of many smaller groups in all, according to some researchers. Several of these ethnic groups have been fighting with the successive government since independence in 1948. Accurate news reports of any kind from these states rarely came out into mainstream media. More than five-decade time under military, the people around the world barely noticed what really happened in the resource-rich ethnic areas.

As the best-known ethnic media organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, BNI received funding and training in the past from western sources such as Open Society Foundations. Circumstances are evidence for obligation of the ethnic groups to get their own media, particularly regardless of government efforts to take advantage. Besides, ethnic journalists concern about prevailing cronies' media businesses that will be involved publishing ethnic languages ahead of ethnic news outlets. There are many objections of natural resources in ethnic areas being sold off to foreigners without locals' consent, and such news stories aren't preferential reporting in pro-government media.

BNI has a vision of establishing a strong ethnic media network to facilitate each ethnic media group to have its own program serving its own language and culture. Hostilities and human rights violations are still going on especially in ethnic areas. To date, ethnic people are far away from media-knowledge and they are afraid to talk the reporters. As a result, ethnic media sustainability is essential not only to provide related news to the local public but also to help peacemaking with reliable news sources.

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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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