Ethnic exile Myanmar news groups are reluctant to establish their operations inside the country despite government reforms that have drawn other foreign news outlets, saying they still consider the journalism environment stifling.
New media rules implemented over the past two years have largely allowed press groups, including the once-banned foreign and exile media outlets, greater freedom to operate in Myanmar.
But the ethnic media groups, mostly founded in exile, face greater obstacles to reporting, their representatives said Thursday at a forum in Chiang Mai, Thailand on Myanmar’s reforms hosted by the non-profit Human Rights Education Institute of Burma.
Editor Sai Leik from Burma News International—an umbrella organization of 11 small, independent news outlets mostly based in Thailand and focusing on ethnic groups in Myanmar’s borderlands— said the media environment in Myanmar is not open enough for many ethnic media outlets to move their operations there.
“Since the situation inside Myanmar is not completely open for media yet, we still need to be based outside of the country,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service on the sidelines of the conference.
“If the transition period is going to take a long time, we will definitely need to hold on to the bases outside the country,” he said, adding that some exile media that have returned to the country have faced “difficulties.”
Naw Din of the Kachin News Group, which is a member of BNI and focuses on northern Myanmar’s war-torn Kachin state, said the easing of Myanmar’s press restrictions does not apply to ethnic media.
“We, the ethnic media, haven’t had any rights,” Naw Din told the forum, saying the groups do not seem welcome in the country, where ethnic-language media was banned under the military regime that ruled since 1962.
"It was said that there was press freedom in 1961 when General Ne Win ran the country, and it is said that there is now, under President Thein Sein’s administration, but these rights are not for ethnic media,” he said.
BNI member Mizzima News Agency, which was founded in New Delhi and does not focus on a particular one of Myanmar’s ethnic groups, moved its main offices to Yangon from Chiang Mai last year, and the Independent Mon News Agency, which focuses on ethnic Mon issues, has made the move to Mawlamyine.
But others in the group—the Narinjara News, Kaladan Press, Karen Information Center, Khonumthung News, Network Media Group, the Shan Herald Agency for News, Phophtaw News, Kantarawaddy Times, and Kachin News Group—are reluctant to shift their operations to Myanmar.
Most of those outlets are based in Chiang Mai, Thailand and focus on news about Kachin, Karen, Karenni, or other ethnic groups that have fought wars with Myanmar’s military government, while two have their roots in Bangladesh and focus on Rakhine and Rohingya ethnic groups in the west of Myanmar.
Myanmar has seen a significant easing of media restrictions since Thein Sein took over in 2011 after decades of harsh military rule. Once-imprisoned journalists have been freed and local newspapers are free to report on many previously banned subjects.
But press watchdogs say some obstacles to free and unfettered reporting remain as old attitudes persist. According to the law, journalists can still be jailed on defamation charges or for disseminating information deemed a threat to national security.
Earlier this month, journalists decried the new press law put forward by the Ministry of Information, saying, among other restrictions, it gave the government broad powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses.
Among the most stringent remaining restrictions has been the coverage of military issues and fighting between armed ethnic groups and government troops, a key topic for media outlets focusing on ethnic groups in Myanmar’s conflict-ridden borderlands.
According to the U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Myanmar authorities have "pressured” local newspapers over their Kachin war coverage.
In January, the Ministry of Defense charged that the media had “fabricated” news about government operations against Kachin rebels.
Naw Din said that when fierce fighting occurred between Kachin rebels and government forces, the Kachin News Group’s operations were targeted and the organization had its phone and internet access cut off.
“Our website was hacked two times in September 2011 and November 2012 while the government army attacked Kachin armed groups,” he said.
“Based on this, we can say that ethnic media are restricted,” he said.
Although almost half of Myanmar's estimated 60 million people are ethnic minorities, no newspapers or radio stations in the country produced news in ethnic languages until 2010.
Many ethnic minority people cannot speak or read the Myanmar language, leaving them with little access to outside information aside from state-run ethnic language broadcasts.
At Myanmar’s first ethnic media conference in Mawlamyine in April, some 100 media groups called for greater recognition for the role of ethnic media in the country, urging parliament to help promote ethnic publications and broadcasting to help forge a more diverse media environment.
After this week’s conference, Sai Leik said that despite the difficulties ethnic media face in Myanmar, the groups are feeling the pressure to return to the country to report on the rapid changes that are taking place.
“If we don’t return to Myanmar when the government has invited us back and when Myanmar is opening up in some ways, we will be one step behind,” he said.
Reported by Aung Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.