BBC News comes to Burma
BBC World News will soon be available in Burma. Those are words that, even six months ago, I would not have imagined writing. But Burma, a byword for media censorship and repression, is starting to open up.
In September I visited Burma to begin the negotiations which led to this breakthrough in BBC distribution. I was struck by how rapid the media changes are for a country where state media had been long stuck in a repressive timewarp.
A World Service team visited the state broadcaster. We saw the most surreal newsroom I have ever visited. There were no journalists there. "Why not?" we asked. "We don't need them yet. The news hasn't arrived."
We learnt the news is literally delivered once a day by the state news agency. The job of the journalists was to read it out, word for word, unaltered.
But those journalists and editors are now keen to have the BBC's help in learning about open and balanced journalism. It will be a long road, given the ingrained habits of censorship and self-censorship.
But the BBC, through its pioneering media development charity BBC Media Action, is able to offer training to editors and journalists to teach them what independent journalism is. Even officials from the Ministry of Information, the former censors, asked if they could go on BBC journalism courses. Alongside the desire for training, the opening up of Burma to international broadcasters is naturally to be welcomed.
However, there is a long way to go. The massively popular BBC Burmese service, which we estimate is listened to by more than eight million people a week, is not yet allowed to broadcast within Burma. It is transmitted only on shortwave, faithfully listened to, as Aung San Suu Kyi has done for so many years. We urge the government to fully open its airwaves.
And we told the Burmese government that the BBC would continue to scrutinise the country closely. Indeed, as it becomes possible for our journalists to travel within the country, reports such as Fergal Keane's recent searing Newsnight film on human rights abuses in Rakhine state, will form a key part of the BBC's role in the country.
We will also continue to report the progress being made in the political and economic spheres.
At this early stage of opening up, it is hard to know if the hopes of media freedom will be fulfilled, but it is at least an encouraging sign that the BBC can now report from and to the country in English.
Authoritarian governments everywhere are asking themselves if they can and should hold back the free flow of news any more. And, as they ask themselves these questions, politicians, officials and journalists are looking to the BBC as the international exemplar of quality, impartial and independent journalism.
Peter Horrocks is the director of BBC Global News