“We aim to be the country’s most important media company”

It took 24 years for Soe Myint to return to his homeland. He spent 24 years waiting, but also keeping busy with his hard and dedicated work in establishing a free and independent news service reporting on the situation in Burma. For the past few years, Soe Myint and his media company, Mizzima Media, have been able to work freely in the country. Here, he talks about the state of press freedom in Burma, a country slowly opening up to the outside world.

March 13 2014 Text: Jesper Bengtsson Translation from Swedish: Neil Betteridge

“Even though things have moved quickly, it can, of course, come to a point where some of the progress is rolled back, but I see this as a natural part of a transition like this, that it brings opportunities and risks.”

So writes Soe Myint in one of his email replies. That was how he wanted it: written questions, answers and follow-up questions. There was no time for an interview on Skype or any other cool social medium.

It’s busy days in Burma. Since Soe Myint decided to return from exile with Mizzima, he has opened a daily newspaper in Burmese, a weekly magazine in English and several multi-media channels. He is also engaged in several journalist training programmes, some of which are run with Swedish Fojo.

Trained journalists are few and far between in a country in which the media landscape has only recently exploded. Like many others, Soe Myint fled from Burma and the great uprising of 1988. Back then he was studying international relations at Rangoon University and had become involved with the nascent democracy movement. That summer and autumn several million people took to the streets to protest against 26 years of military rule, putting such pressure on the junta that the system was close to collapse. But the generals retaliated brutally, forcing thousands of people, mainly the most active students, to flee the bloodshed.

Soe Myint ended up initially in Thailand, where he felt increasingly frustrated at the lack of concern shown by the international community and the western media over what was happening in Burma. So one day in the autumn of 1990 he and a fellow Burmese activist boarded a Thai Airways flight from Bangkok to Burma. As the aircraft lifted off the runway, Soe Myint produced a miniature statue of a laughing Buddha; he claimed that there was a bomb concealed inside and demanded that the pilot reroute to Calcutta. Once there, the two students held a press conference at which they demanded action from the West in support of democracy and human rights in Burma.

The 220 passengers and Thai Airlines seemed to understand why Soe Myint and his companion had carried out the hijack, because no police report was filed. After spending three months in prison, Soe Myint was granted asylum in India; he was later also acquitted by an Indian court.
“I don’t regret the hijack,” said Soe Myint in 2007 in an interview with the New Zealand-based online news outlet scoop.co.nz. “Not given the situation that Burma was in back then. We carried out the whole thing unarmed and without injury to anyone, and we had the whole-hearted support of the Indian people.”

A few years later, in 1998, Soe Myint launched the online magazine Mizzima, again in order to raise awareness of the situation in his homeland.
“I conceived it as an international news channel about Burma and issues related to the country,” he told Scoop. It was an aspiration he fulfilled.

During the many years in which developments in Burma seemed to have stagnated and the junta were not releasing any relevant information via the formal channels, exiled media outlets like Mizzima, the radio station Democratic Voice of Burma and the newspaper Irrawaddy were the only credible sources for anyone wishing to learn more about the country, having earned respect through the independent line that they had taken from their very inception. They understood the point of modern journalism and sought no links with opposition groups, even though their methods supported, of course, the struggle for democracy and human rights.

Burma started to implement reforms in earnest in the spring of 2011. The critics argue that the generals only dared to start the process because they had adopted a new constitution that safeguarded military power; besides, their political party had won the rigged election the previous November.

Regardless, this led to the first formally civil government in Burma since 1962 and sparked off a raft of civil liberties reforms, primarily the rights of a free press and organisation.

Since then, the country has ditched a system in which all printed material, from books to newspapers and even the smallest funeral announcements, were screened by the Ministry of Information. Journalists working inside the country during the junta years had grown accustomed to being given recommended stories to cover and angles to take. The papers were full of photographs of generals pressing palms with citizens, generals opening sports centres and generals crowing about the country’s tremendous progress—and all while everyone knew that the country had stopped developing since the military coup of 1962.

Since 2012, however, such censorship is no more. Screening is no longer done and as of last April people are even free to start and run their own private newspapers.
“I mean, I knew that things would change sooner or later,” says Soe Myint, “but I was just as surprised as everyone else at how quickly it happened. And I think that now the changes are themselves driving further change.”

At the same time, Soe Myint suggests that much more remains to be done before anyone can talk about a stable free press and speech freedoms.
“People can express themselves freely today with no risk of reprisals. But the glass is only half full. Many of the repressive laws are still in place and there are no new laws to guarantee the freedoms. The greatest obstacle to a free and impartial press is access to information. The government and its ministries are very tight-lipped.”

Last autumn, a female journalist was sentenced to three months in prison for having pressed a local politician in northern Burma about suspected corruption; formally, however, she was convicted of having forced her way “without permission” into the man’s home.
“This demonstrates that the laws and their interpretation can still be repressive by nature and be used against journalism at a political whim,” says Soe Myint.

He also stresses that the freedoms currently only apply to printed media, and that the TV and radio remain under strict state control, even though there are plans for reforms there too.

The parliament recently adopted a new media bill that officially enshrines the new freedom in law; but the law also regulates the possession of and licence to operate printing presses, leading many commentators to argue that it can be a tool for re-assuming control of the newspapers.

However, at heart Soe Myint is happy with developments and like many other journalists in Burma, he believes that the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. Bearing in mind just how long the process has been going on for, and just how much the powerholders have committed themselves to widening press freedoms, any serious lasting backlash is unlikely.

The new rules are also designed to cover the Internet, to which everyone, in just a matter of years, has gained access. The number of blogs and microblogs has skyrocketed, and it is estimated that in just a few years, some 80 per cent of the population will be online, mainly through mobile devices.

Meanwhile, Soe Myint remains busy with Mizzima.
“We’re now a multimedia group. We’ve got newspapers, websites, a TV channel and all our media products are available online. Our goal is to be the country’s most important media company within the next three years.”