When Burma was under military rule the news on state television was straightforward: a series of faxes from the Ministry of Information would arrive at the state broadcaster; those faxes would be bundled together and handed to the newsreaders; they would then read them out. Even if the journalists had wanted to do any of their own reporting – and as they were civil servants rather than actual journalists, that was unlikely – it wouldn’t have been possible. “There was no internet access, no mobile phones,” says U Ze Yar, the director of radio. “Even the landline phone was just for internal connections.”
Ze Yar, a short, cheery man with floppy black hair, laughs and shrugs. He is one of a handful of news executives tasked with transforming the former mouthpiece of a military regime into an independent state-funded media outlet fit for a democracy. Over the past five years Burma – or Myanmar, as the junta renamed it – has undergone a series of political and economic reforms: political prisoners have been released, including Aung San Suu Kyi who had been under house arrest; a nominally civilian government has taken power; peaceful demonstrations are technically legal; and pre-publication censorship has been abolished. A general election is scheduled for by the end of the year that, if free and fair, will probably lead to victory for Suu Kyi’s party.
These steps have all been given the seal of approval by American leaders, with Hillary Clinton and then Barack Obama visiting the country and meeting with both president Thein Sein and Suu Kyi. In some ways the reforms were forced upon the generals who ran – and some say still run – Burma. At independence this was the richest country in Southeast Asia; now it’s the poorest. Sanctions imposed by Europe and the US made the country too dependent on China; officials from Beijing had enormous sway over Burma’s economy. The price of western involvement was democracy – and every democracy needs a free media. The government has promised to introduce new broadcasting and media laws and to turn Myanmar Radio and Television (mrtv) into what it calls a “public-service broadcaster”. BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, has been brought in to train staff. The aim is to help MRTV become an independent broadcaster that the nation can trust. A week spent at MRTV’s surreal headquarters in a closed-off compound an hour’s drive beyond the country’s capital suggests that, like so many of Burma’s reforms, change will not come easily.
Paul Gei leads his cameraman and assistant through the food market, past wicker baskets full of red chillies, large metal bowls of orange-coloured spices and piles of fresh tomatoes all laid out on mats. They stop at a stack of large limes, each the size of a melon. After a short conversation with the woman sat cross-legged behind the limes the cameraman leans in close and films them for about 20 seconds. Gei thanks the woman and ticks “limes” off his list.
The market is vibrant but Gei’s work is dull. He is making a programme on healthy eating. Later, back at the studio, a voiceover will be recorded detailing government-approved advice on what food to eat and why. Today the team needs to make sure it films all the right food.
An hour later, as Gei and his team are sat by the side of the road drinking sugar palm wine from bamboo cups, he begins to open up. “There is too much pressure now,” he says. “We cannot be completely free. If we are filming for the news they say, ‘You can’t do that news,’ because it’s a little bit against the officials.”
If the laws change then Gei believes he can start making programmes that challenge the government. “The citizens do not trust completely the officials. By showing the other side people can compare these two stories. I think we will have some freedom.”
Even if the laws don’t pass, Gei still believes journalists should be willing to push the boundaries of what’s acceptable. “We can move the law a little bit by our work even if it’s not [law]. We can shake a little bit.”
Gei is 22 years old and a year into his employment at mrtv. Shaking – or pushing back at – the government doesn’t appear to be so popular with his more senior colleagues. One afternoon a group of editors and senior producers meet us to discuss their work. Sat on beige fake-leather sofas in a too-bright, overly air-conditioned meeting room, they talk about the changes taking place in a formal and less enthusiastic manner. “Myanmar is transitioning to democracy and state media is transitioning to public service media,” says Su Su Set, the assistant director for radio. “That is very logical.”
After each question the group discusses their answer among themselves before Set summarises. They talk about the legal and technical reforms, the audience feedback process that they’ve set up and the importance of decentralisation. The phrase “public-service broadcasting” is mentioned a few times but this seems to be more about “people-oriented news” rather than broadcasting anything critical of the government.
What newsgathering changes have occurred appear to be about the process, not the final result. “In the past we just received the news from the state-owned Myanmar News Agency,” says Tin Tin Myat, a radio editor. “Now we get it ourselves with mrtv reporters.” Only to a certain degree, however. “We don’t cover the voices of opposition groups,” says Su Su Set. “There are guidelines for us and we just have to follow them.”
Those guidelines are not always clear. Moe Thuza Aung, the television station’s deputy director, openly admits that no one is entirely sure what they can or can’t say any more. “We have some editorial control to a certain extent,” she says carefully. “We are not always clear which line we are about to step on.” Those working for the radio station seem to have more freedom. The reason says radio director Ze Yar is that fewer government officials are tuning in. “The superiors are watching television and the internet. They are forgetting the radio. We are flying under the radar,” says Ze Yar, laughing. At 19.00, mrtv screens parliamentary news followed by the main news bulletin at 20.00. “After 19.00 none of the superiors are listening.” He has commissioned a programme called Lively News that can take more risks; messages from listeners are read out after the programme.
Ze Yar is sat behind a desk piled high with papers and two blue plastic trays – old-style in-trays and out-trays, the former far bigger than the latter – perched at one end. He talks openly, criticising senior journalists as well as the radio station’s failure to report properly on Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 130,000 people in 2008. “Nobody puts blame on mrtv but people should. Radio could have protected people before the cyclone. Radio can save lives. It was a bitter experience for me.”
His challenge now is not merely to push the boundaries with the government – a government that he works for – but also to persuade his reporters to be actual reporters. “Most of the so-called skilful people have a lot of experience under the previous government. It is not easy for us to persuade them to join in the transition process.” The challenges are not merely about censorship. “Most of the senior staff come in at 9.30am and leave at 4.30pm.” He shakes his head. “At exactly 4.30, they close the door. We are earning money from the people. We have to serve our people all the time.” That view may not be universally shared by Ze Yar’s colleagues in senior management. Someone who has had many dealings with senior officials at mrtv is scathing: the director of television is “a snake, completely controlled by the military” while the minister of information “is very good at talking about reform but doesn’t mean it”. Then there’s mrtv’s director-general, whose last job was head of the government’s censorship board. None of these individuals grants monocle an interview.
Like every other part of government, mrtv moved from Yangon when the new capital Naypyidaw was created. mrtv staff don’t even have the dubious joy of living in the new capital: the headquarters is on the outskirts of a small town an hour’s drive north from Naypyidaw. The reasons, like so many Burmese government decisions, are opaque. Some observers suggest that placing the station outside the already hard-to-reach capital and putting a military barracks at the end of the road makes it harder for any coup plotters to take control of the airwaves. One thing is clear, however: aside from parliament there is nothing to report on up here. Editors and reporters in Tatkon are cut off from the country that they are supposed to be covering while those in Yangon have no say in decision-making.
The headquarters may look modern on the outside but the same can’t be said of the inside. The air is stale and the pace is slow. The lights aren’t on in the corridors. Carpet tiles are out of place and in some corners no one seems to have dusted since the building opened. The computers are old and don’t appear to get much use. It would be hard to describe the newsroom as bustling. There are banks of computers but only a few stations are occupied. No one is in a rush. In the international-news section are old yellowing piles of state newspaper the New Light of Myanmar. A drama is broadcast on the one television. In another room love songs play out from a radio and a child sits on her mother’s lap. Most people take off their shoes before they enter a room so the corridors are strewn with flip-flops, wedges and even a few pairs of slippers.
It is hard to work out what has changed since the reform process began. The biggest issues in the country are still off limits. There is no discussion about the hundreds of Rohingya who have been killed and the more than 140,000 displaced; in fact the word “Rohingya” will never be said on mrtv. Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition, is never interviewed. The camera work may be sharper and the sets more impressive but if the content hasn’t changed is this not just improved propaganda?
Senior mrtv staff once talked about “transitioning to a public service broadcaster”; now they’re merely “planning to transition”. The question – and it’s one thrown up by every single one of the reforms supposedly introduced across the country in the past few years – is whether the slow progress is deliberate. “The generals know exactly what they’re doing,” says one western observer. “They have an iron grip.” A western diplomat in Yangon is more forgiving: “Is it some sort of sinister plot to fool the foreigners? Maybe. But the biggest problem is human capacity.” Reforms may be signed off at the top but “there is a problem with how far down things are implemented”.
The newsroom is busier as 20.00 approaches. News editor Khin Moe Au sits at a desk by the door. In front of her is a series of faxes from the Myanmar News Agency. She picks one up. “This is Upper House news,” she says. Another is about one of the president’s meetings earlier in the day. “This will be the main story.” There are nine national stories on the running order. Every single one is a press release from the government.
The clock strikes 20.00. Next door in the studio as the martial music blares out, the two newsreaders, Aung Aung Oo and Thurein Lwin, pick up their scripts. I ask Khin if any of the words from the press releases have been changed. She bursts out in embarrassed laughter. “No! Don’t touch!”