Nothing leaves the teahouse – journalism in Myanmar

If you hold a press conference in Myanmar today, be prepared for a relatively tame exchange.  The journalists expect to be fed, from information required to the visuals used.  

Half of the press corps is under 27 years of age, largely untrained.  There are two distinct groups, the editors and journalists who worked during the Press Scrutiny Board time (pre-2012) when media was pre-censored, and then you have the youngsters.  

The old guards are prone to self-censorship, the youngsters prone to entertainment.  

An old timer, someone who survived the pro-democracy failure of 1988, put it this way: “No rainbows, just clouds, and lots of sun or rain,” sun and rain refer to the drama of persecution.   

Even with the world’s most famous dissident “in power,” there hasn’t been a golden age of journalism here.  From post-colonial to military and post-military rule, the media scene in Myanmar has been characterised by uncertainty, caution and suppression.  Ultimately, this is a society that has lived under five decades of dictatorship with a rigid hierarchical culture.

The reality: media houses, including digital news sites, struggle to make a profit with the explosion of the mobile phone.  Most digital sites are simply online versions of newspapers, which put their print content online or post articles on Facebook, Myanmar’s internet.  There is no online innovation with the overwhelming dominance of Facebook.  Among the most popular Facebook pages in Myanmar, more than half are news sites.  

Given that the muzzle on Myanmar’s media was only loosened in 2012, it is not surprising that a strong culture of journalism has not developed.  For a long time journalists simply wrote what the government told them to.  

Journalism is not the go-to profession here because journalists are poorly paid; but the most salient characteristic of journalism in Myanmar is the personal risk of prosecution, a tool the government and military use as a strong deterrent against free expression.

The darkest period would undoubtedly be the time under direct military rule, pre-2010, before Aung San Suu Kyi was released.  Then came the Thein Sein semi-civilian government in early 2011.  In hindsight, he was relatively enlightened.  Journalists no longer had to submit articles to state censors before publication, which allowed for dailies to exist.  

This was the “honeymoon period.”  About 17 dailies emerged, and a wide range of topics allowed.  Even though everyone was uncertain, media gingerly pushed the limits and danced around the boundaries.  

Then in 2014, the backsliding started: Unity Five, five editors and journalists of the Unity Journal were arrested for “disclosing state secrets.”  

From then to present day, journalists are a monitored and targetted group.  There are many areas where critical comments are off-limits.  These include army affairs, accusations of corruption, Aung San Suu Kyi, the clergy, and of course the drawn-out Rohingya saga.  

On the other hand, the press can have healthy discourses on proposals to be debated in parliament, the chronic electricity issue, education, car accidents, disasters.

Experienced journalists have been leaving the media since 2016 as more and more reporters come under threat.  Just in April this year, the Myanmar government arrested a senior journalist for publishing an interview of the spokesperson of the Arakan Army rebel group on his website, and two other journalists in the same case, one of them for republishing it.  The website, Voice of Myanmar, has since been blocked. 

 This follows the well known case in 2017 when two Reuters journalists were arrested and jailed for reporting an army massacre of Rohingya.  So the use of law and of the courts by the government and military to suppress independent journalism has created an impossible situation for the media.  It forces journalists to choose between self-censorship and the risk of prosecution.

If you really want to know what the locals are passionate about, you need to join them at the ubiquitous, open-air teahouses, Myanmar’s popular destination for both the rich and poor, the young and not so young. 

 Over simple snacks on small low tables and plastic stools by the pavement, teahouses are an important and integral part of life in Myanmar, nowhere in Southeast Asia would you find such a large number of teahouses.  

The phrase “sit at a teahouse” describes well what the Burmese love to do, spend hours talking, sometimes ordering just a cup of tea.  Nothing is recorded, so it is a free flow of the latest news and gossips.  

But what’s said at the teahouse stays at the teahouse.