Overcoming Censorship to Build a Free Press in Burma
At a time when Burma had one of the most restrictive media environments in the world, the Burmese “J-School” — based in Chiang Mai, Thailand — was born.
In 2001, the Burmese “J-School” began training more than 1,000 journalists who worked for news outlets with editorial departments based in exile at the Thai-Burma border.
For two years I worked on this USAID-supported program to promote freedom of the press in Burma, a country where censorship prevailed and the state controlled the media. Those who challenged this rule often did so at great risk of imprisonment, assault and intimidation.
These intrepid J-School trained reporters would broadcast their news reports into the country and to the world on the airwaves of Radio Free Asia or Democratic Voice of Burma and to international media outlets.
This is how journalists were able to document almost every major development in the country, including the “Saffron Revolution” in 2007, when thousands took to the streets to protest a rise in fuel prices, as well as Cyclone Nargis, which killed 140,000, and the constitutional referendum in the following year.
The J-School drew in students, musicians, and even field hands and market workers. We taught them the basics of journalism, including how to write a lede (the first paragraph of a news story), the inverted pyramid (a method for organizing the facts in a news story), and interviewing.
We also demonstrated how to use a camera, microphone, voice recorder, computers and in some cases the internet, which was virtually unavailable in Burma at the time.
Despite being such a diverse group, all of the students had an idealistic desire to exercise their right to gather and impart information.
I recall a 21-year-old monk who crossed the Thai-Burma border to attend J-School. He carried nothing but the ambition to become a journalist and the saffron robes on his back, which he shed for a T-shirt and jeans that I bought for him.
Like his peers, he saw in journalism a way to convey and affirm a truth about his life and the life of his country — in a way that was not allowed to exist in Burma.
Once they finished J-School, these students took great risks to exercise their rights to ensure access to information.
One graduate of J-School, Seng-Mai, shortly after returning to Burma, reported on environmental damage and human rights abuses in the sugarcane fields in Burma’s highlands.
I was proud of her and concerned about her safety even though she, like many of the others, reported under a pseudonym through exile publications.
Today, Seng Mai no longer uses a pseudonym and continues to do hard-hitting reporting. She’s well known and is the first and only female editor-in-chief in Burma.
In 2010, Burma began a democratic transition. As part of its reforms, in 2012, Burma abolished the office of the censor and guaranteed press freedom. The J-School in Chiang Mai closed its doors as it became possible to train journalists in Burma.
Burma’s media sector is expanding, and like Seng Mai, many J-School graduates have gone on to hold key positions in Burmese and ethnic language media. These networks are sowing the seeds for a more inclusive media landscape, one that is vital for the country’s emergent political opening and peace processes.
USAID’s media and civil society programs in Burma today continue to rely upon the foundation that was laid through these early journalist training programs.
During Burma’s historic 2015 election, USAID-trained journalists were at the forefront, reporting on irregularities in the voting rolls and possible hot-spots for voter fraud to attract greater oversight.
Most importantly, current and prior USAID-supported media outlets ensured that up-to-date election information reached marginalized and conflict-affected communities in local languages, helping to ensure that all votes would count.
Like in Burma, USAID supports programs in over 30 countries to strengthen journalistic professionalism, establish media management skills and promote free media.
USAID programs are helping local media systems deliver critical information in diverse areas of development, including agriculture, education, health, growth, environmental protection, resource management, conflict mitigation, election reporting and more.
In countries struggling to cope with and recover from conflict, USAID also supports peace-building messaging and civil society monitoring.
Watching the levels of censorship in Burma incrementally shift down somewhat — and the cumulative effects of Burmese journalists covering over a decade of tumultuous events — serves as a reminder of how development can often be a slow process.
However, USAID’s long-term engagement and strategic patience in countries like Burma proves we can make a meaningful contribution to fostering change during a long transition.
About the Author
Josh Machleder is a Media Development Specialist in USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance.