Myanmar begins opening doors to foreign journalists

By May Sandy
Volume 31, No. 612
January 30 - February 5, 2012

Rachel Harvey, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent.
Pic: Yadanar

FOR many years Myanmar has been a challenging country for foreign journalists to report on, with access difficult and accurate information hard to come by. The election of November 2010 and the subsequent release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi garnered unprecedented attention, yet for the most part it remained impossible for foreign journalists to work in Myanmar legally.

In the second half of 2011, however, the government abruptly changed tack, even going so far as to invite foreign journalists to apply for visas. As a result, scores of print and broadcast journalists working for publications across the globe have visited the country, filing copy from unlikely locations like the hluttaw compound in Nay Pyi Taw and interviewing senior members of the government.

Earlier this month, the BBC’s Southeast Asia correspondent, Rachel Harvey, and several of her colleagues were given permission to cover the visit of British Foreign Secretary William Hague. Ms Harvey told The Myanmar Times in an interview that she believed allowing journalists into the country would build trust between the government and media, which have in the past viewed each other with a significant amount of skepticism.

“The government will know that we are not here to try and show them in a bad light, we are just here to find the truth, that’s our job,” she said.

“One thing that becomes increasingly clear is certainly now under this new government, it’s probably too simplistic to talk about just one unified government, or the military or the security forces.

“It is an opportunity for t he government to get their beliefs, their thoughts, and their vision to a wider audience.

“The next step that I would like to see would be for us to be able to apply for journalist visas when there’s not a specific [event]. But just to come and do different types of stories. So, it’d be nice to come back and do something on health, on education or the music scene or art. If we come and we only have a five-day visa to cover one trip, we don’t have time to do that.”

U Min Htet from the BBC’s Myanmar-language program said it was his second working visit to Myanmar, after covering the visit of United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I could speak to people openly on the street and people seem to have almost no fear to speak with us,” he said.

He said if “mutual trust” could be established the relationship between the government and foreign media could go beyond covering the visits of high-profile dignitaries.

“If they see us reporting the news honestly, it is good for the country and good for them as well. My ultimate aim is to open an office here.”

While the government has shown a new willingness to engage with the international media, there are still question marks over how this relationship will progress in the future.

Some exile media, like VOA and Mizzima, are investigating options for expanding their presence inside the country. (See related story above.)

returning In early December, news editor of VOA’s Myanmar program, U Than Lwin Tun, met Minister for Information, U Kyaw Hsan, in Nay Pyi Taw. He later told local media that his visit was not for reporting news.

“I am here to discuss work with the minister. I didn’t ask him when he will give media freedom. I told him what I want to do in the future and if it is possible. In a way, this is indirectly asking him, how far would he allow the media to work,” he said.