Confronting Risk at the Crossroads of Media Freedom in Burma
Mots-clés :risk, journalism, freedom of expression, Burma, Myanmar
Throughout over fifty years of stringent censorship, Burma’s ethnic media, exiled news agencies, citizen journalists, bloggers and even state-sanctioned periodicals revealed a surprising level of diversity and dialogue coursing beneath the surface of state control. Today, under the promise of legislative reform, this diverse media activity stands at a historical crossroads, with underground and exiled prac- titioners returning to above-ground production inside Burma. This article describes percep- tions of risk during the years of the dictatorship from the journalists’ points of view, and why they continued their work under threat of incarceration, exile, and death. The article then examines the historical context that led to journalists’ prominent place in Burma’s demo- cratic struggles. Finally, it contemplates the future risks they and their work may face in the new environment, and proffers some aspects for the international community to consider. After decades of struggle, a move to civilian government has created an opening for media organizations to surface above ground and/or to return from exile. However, the position of journalism is far from secure. Journalists are still subject to arrest and harassment, and still face danger in areas where armed conflict continues and Burma Army soldiers operate far from central control. Amid an uncertain transition to civilian rule, there are no tidy endings to the story. As well, the landscape has opened up for Western powers to export their own vision of commercial/corporate media practice in the name of ‘democratic development,’ without regard to already-successful indigenous journalism structures and methods. Within this overall context, I will argue that without a complete grasp of the diversity and strength of existing grassroots media, there is a danger that international media development assis- tance may blunt the edge of a style of risk-taking journalism that unabashedly holds power to account, and that seeks social justice, not profit.