Burma: "It's unpredictable"

Regional Director, Asia, BBC Media Action

The Shwedegon pagoda in Burma.

BBC Media Action, the BBC’s international development charity, together with the BBC’s Global News division is on a fact-finding mission to Burma to negotiate the BBC’s presence in the country for the first time in decades.

"It's unpredictable."

These were the first words of the CEO of a weekly Burmese newspaper, speaking to Peter Horrocks (Director, BBC Global News), Tin Htar Swe (South Asia Hub and Burmese Service Editor) and me (Regional Director, Asia at BBC Media Action), as we sat in his sixth floor office sipping sweet coffee, having asked him what he thought of the current situation for the media in Burma.

Peter, Swe and I are in Burma – or Myanmar, as it is known by its government, – to meet the Ministry of Information.  We had been invited to submit proposals for training, opening an office, and distribution of BBC content, and were following up with a visit. Before driving the five hours to Naypyidaw, Burma's capital city since 2006, we spent two days in Rangoon meeting a range of media actors and getting to know the country, closed to so many for so long.

Media changes are coming thick and fast in Burma. In the week before our visit, the Minister of Information was replaced, as was the Deputy. Both moves have been welcomed by the journalists we met, as the old minister was seen as less reform-minded. The new minister has already promised to re-write the forthcoming Media Law, allow publication of independent daily newspapers and re-institute his predecessor's short-lived Press Council with a greater representation of journalists.

Shortly before this, on 20 August the Censor Board ceased to operate having previously declared that it would no longer censor print media pre-publication. All the print journalists agreed that this was a positive step, and had made their lives considerably easier. One team showed us the censored text in an article about a land dispute written in late 2011. They also showed us the front page, photo-laden article they finally published on the same story in August 2012, just after the cessation of censorship. The contrast is stark. Yet post-publication censorship is still a distinct possibility, and no-one is entirely sure how far they can push the boundaries.

We have discussed with many of those we have met the need for journalists and other media practitioners to set their own rules when the rules are not set for them. This does not mean self-censorship, but a commitment to editorial values of impartiality, balance and accuracy, to ensure that the media does not itself take sides. This is an essential part of what makes the BBC the respected entity that it is, and a core aspect of training that we hope to undertake in the country.

After a long day of exciting, productive, informative meetings, Swe took Peter and I to visit the Shwedegon pagoda, the 2500-year-old enormous golden stupa that stands above the city. It is astounding. Swe told us stories of spending long days in the temple in her childhood, happily playing hide and seek with her cousins as her grandmother paid the barest of attention.

This is only Swe’s second visit to her native Burma in 20 years; the first was in January 2012. She offered to take my photo, saying, "You never know when you will be back at the Shwedegon pagoda." A little later I did the same for her, repeating her admonishment, which is perhaps far more poignant for her than me.

But my favourite memory of our visit was of a brown-toothed elderly guard gently moving Swe into position to show her how to see the changing colours reflecting off the ring embedded in the very top of the golden peak. Her laughter, the guard’s delight at our wonder, my astonishment as this tiny reflection far up on the stupa did indeed turn yellow, green, blue as I followed her steps… 

Burma. It's unpredictable.

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