Ko Htwe describes ethnic media’s response to constraints on the press in Myanmar.
After reforms by Myanmar’s post-2011 government, the landscape for both mainstream and ethnic media has changed dramatically, with new media outlets blooming. Abolishing the country’s censor board and welcoming exiled media groups to publish in-country, the quasi-civilian Thein Sein government pursued major advances toward press freedom. More than 885 publications— including 50 published in ethnic languages— have been approved by the government, up from 300 registered in 2014. Among these publications are three Chin language daily newspapers, 40 ethnic language journals and seven ethnic language magazines, according to Pe Myint, Minister of Information.
The ethnic language publications, in particular, represent a notable expansion of ethnic media— a term I define elsewhere as “publications, broadcasts or websites that are associated with ethnic minority peoples and that focus on ethnic minority concerns, regardless of whether they use Burmese or an ethnic minority language.” Also included as part of “ethnic media” are “state-based” and “locally-based” periodicals, distributed in ethnic minority areas in Myanmar, that take up ethnic-minority concerns.
Under the present administration, led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD), many Burmese media onlookers believe that the media industry will see further progress. However, according to a recent PEN Myanmar press release on World Press Freedom Day, the country’s free expression score is only 8 out of 60 possible points. Limited access to information, markets, and funding, harassment of journalists and editors, as well as difficulties in securing long-term sustainability were the main barriers for media groups, both ethnic and mainstream Burmese. Moreover, journalists and editors face possible lawsuits under 66(d) of the Telecommunication Law, which can result in a prison sentence up to three years for defamation using a telecommunications network. At least 54 people have been charged under this law, with eight people sentenced to prison for their posts on social media, according to a letter from Human Rights Watch to the Attorney General and officials from the Ministry of Transport and Communications. Recently, Yangon based The Voice Daily’s editor-in-chief and regular satire contributor faced a lawsuit filed by the military under 66(d).
Despite these difficulties, daily, weekly and monthly publications, covering news, sports, entertainment and astrology both in Burmese and in ethnic languages, are being published in Myanmar. Some publications survive, but many periodicals have disappeared.
The problems facing ethnic media vary depending on the State and Region. Some ethnic media or local- and state-based publications cannot maintain their publications in the long term because of heavy dependence on international donors, limitations of their markets, and a lack of human resources. Kantarawaddy Times of Karenni State, for example, depends heavily on the support of international donors, a problem many ethnic media organizations face given that they must compete with the mainstream Burmese publications. Moreover, ethnic media groups face human resource problems because they cannot provide attractive salaries to professional journalists and editors, as mainstream publications can. Despite these challenges, some ethnic media groups are trying to take advantage of opportunities brought about by the advance of technology, using social media to share what is happening in their area. The Danu ethnic group from Shan State, for example, established the Voice of Danu Facebook page to share their concerns. With Internet capable cellphone penetration dramatically increasing (to 70 percent in 2015, according to Freedom House) and the number Facebook users also rising (reaching 11,000,000 in 2016, according to Internet World Stats), many groups see the Internet as central to the future of Myanmar’s ethnic media.
Among them is Tai TV Online, an ethnic media organization based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, that posts its content to social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube to try and break the constraints of the media. It sustains itself with no support from international donors, and, despite being without a stable market, has rich human resources. Established in 2013, Tai TV Online is made up of 19 members who are construction workers, domestic workers, sewing workers and students from Chiang Mai in Thailand and Shan State. One of the founders of Tai TV Online, Nang Kham Ing (who learned journalism while working for formerly-exiled Democratic Voice of Burma and Myanmar Radio and Television over more than a decade) describes the organization. “We base ourselves on the idea that people who have mobile phones can be journalists. In the community, there are members who are interested in media, so it is a place for them to experiment and test,” said Kham Ing, adding that all workers who are interested in the media can voluntarily become journalists and presenters for their online media platform.
Tai TV Online is an example of how ethnic media can build community-linkages across the Thai-Myanmar border as members share news, ideas, culture and language, while also proving that migrant workers have media skills that can be developed. All members are volunteers, working as journalists and presenters when they are free, yet aiming to produce TV programs once a week. Most clips are three to ten minutes, with content on a wide number of topics: internally displaced persons, war, migration, landmines, Shan literature, and the environment. Members learn computer and editing skills from other student members who are from the media and share their knowledge within their media group. All facilities are placed in the Migrant Learning Centre (MLC) in Chiang Mai, and the organization has survived for four years without the support of international donors, though it still faces many financial hardships.
Finances and funding remain huge obstacles for ethnic media’s long-term sustainability. The funding of ethnic media groups in Myanmar varies, with some depending on their own funding. My previous work argues that dependence on financial support from international donors resulted in negative experiences for Hsen Pai, a Shan language journal now trying to rely on self-funding, on local donors or shareholders from the Shan community, and on sales and advertisers. Yet, some ethnic media still heavily depend on international donors to such an extent that they cannot stand on their own feet. When they have tried to stand on their own, they cannot effectively increase their income from media production. While the former exile media Irrawaddy Publishing Group and DVB Multimedia Group earn income from their websites and from online advertisements, ethnic media groups like Tai TV Online have also tried this model, but often their staff struggles to create or attract such advertisements. Ethnic media groups also note that they do not receive financial support from the government.
“We wish to receive income for our program. We tried to receive money using YouTube but we failed,” said Kham Ing, noting that, while his group knew their content could earn money from online advertisement, their members did not have sufficient IT knowledge to implement such a model.
More international funding is not the solution for the sustainability of ethnic media, but cutting funding before the ethnic media groups can stand on their own would lead to wasted resources. The Hsen Pai model for self-funding is good, but different groups have different challenges. Rather than providing financial support, donors might think of offering IT trainings regarding how media groups can earn income from online advertisements, or support the creation of a way to sell ethnic media products to big media groups.
Nai Akar, one of the editors of the Mon State based bi-lingual Than Lwin Times Journal, said all state- or ethnic-based journals in Mon State are financially unprofitable. According to Akar, in the small market of Mon State, there are four state-based journals— two are mainly published in the ethnic Mon language, one with bi-lingual content, and one published in Burmese. “Now information can be accessed from social media, especially in Myanmar. Many young generations do not buy journals to read,” he said, adding that some media groups’ strategy to produce video clips for the news is a way for long-term sustainability, as they can sell these to other big media groups.
As for Tai TV Online members, they only produce web TV they than post on YouTube and Facebook, where they have 93,716 followers and over 87,678 likes. These figures are much higher than other long-operated ethnic media sources such as Karen Information Centre (with 21,471 likes), Shan Herald News for Agency (with 15,205 likes), and Mon News Agency (with 35,170 likes), but still much lower than those of mainstream Burmese media. Yet, despite its popularity, Tai TV Online has limitations as they only use Shan and Thai languages, which cuts off possible links with other ethnic minority groups. However, the founder views this as a strength of their agency: “Using mother language can provide news for people who cannot speak other languages. We receive trust and confidence from our sources who speak the same language. We can collect direct reliable facts without passing through the interpreter. Some locals are afraid to talk if you ask in Burmese or English. We can directly feel their sensitivity,” said Kham Ing.
Three years ago, Thai Public Broadcasting Service’s citizen journalist program offered Tai TV Online the opportunity to launch a 15-minute daily Shan language program with Thai language caption to be broadcast on their channels. They had to refuse because they cannot produce such content on an everyday basis, as Kham Ing explains: “Some volunteers who wish to be journalists have to earn their living, so they cannot focus on reporting all the time. The offer is just an offer but does not include the means or the ‘how’ to pay for the work.” But compared to other media, Nang Kham Ing explained, Tai TV Online’s strength is that their diverse network of members can receive news from communities’ nooks and corners.
Sai Leik, a Burmese researcher who monitors the current peace process, reflects on this idea, recalling the Kokang and Burmese Army (Tatmadaw) conflict in 2015. In cases such as this, it is ethnic media that becomes a window into such events, when information is difficult to collect. “In my opinion, ethnic media groups have consistent reporting about battles in the ethnic areas. After Tatmadaw warned the media to not contact the Kokang rebels, almost all mainstream media stopped reporting Kokang battle news but ethnic media continued to report about it. “But some ethnic media cannot reach the official spokesperson from Tatmadaw for response,” he said.
Aung Lwin, a regular contributor of the locally-based The Tanintharyi Weekly who faced a defamation lawsuit for an essay about a fish lamenting the destruction of a local creek in Tanintharyi region, explains that the local journal is one of the driving forces for the local government to implement change under the new government. While Yangon-based journals have limitations reporting about the region, Tanintharyi-based media can fill the gap, he noted: “Reading Tanintharyi is having food prepared at home but reading others press is like eating a meal outside. This is the most significant.” In this regard, the role of ethnic media is important for the society in Myanmar, but few people acknowledge and realize it.
During the 4th Ethnic Media Conference, held in Arakan State on February 2016, ethnic media called on the government to recognize them as equal to mainstream media, while also discussing the need for entry to state and regional parliament along with future funding from the government. Many ethnic media groups remain frustrated. “…There is no progress. They do not believe and satisfy us. They replied that they will publish their own journal,” said Say Reh Soe, editor of Kantarawaddy Times, adding that NLD’s new state government media relations is poor compared to the former government.
Despite hardships, it is Tai TV Online’s future vision to launch a Tai National Channel. In April, without the support of donors and in opposition to the market, they took their first step. The founders discussed with other seven Shan media groups from Myanmar what it would take to materialize their vision. The media groups agreed to use the same Shan language for the new technological terms and to avoid reports that can inflame racism and violence between different ethnic groups. Then, they opened a group on Line, an application that allows to ring free calls and messages through which they will share information and help with Tai media groups based both inside and outside Myanmar.
Such innovative solutions must be found if the blooming ethnic media groups are to find long-term sustainability and avoid quickly disappearing due to limitations of funding and constraints on human resources. As Zeya, a poet and journalist for DVB multimedia group, more famous under his pen name Thargyi Maung Zeya, said, ethnic media is like a blooming flower surrounded by the thorns:
Ko Htwe is a postgraduate student at Cardiff University studying Journalism, Media and Communication. His research “The Role of Ethnic Media in New Myanmar” was published by Chiang Mai University, Thailand. He has also written articles for Bangkok Post, Asia Sentinel, Walkley Magazine, DVB, Irrawaddy and Karen news.