Democratic Voice of Burma has been broadcasting news to Myanmar from its head office in a back alley on St Hanshaugen in Oslo for more than 21 years, in the process becoming one of the world’s best known exile media organisations.
In particular, DVB’s coverage of the September 2007 protests and reporting of the widespread devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis – and the government’s slow-witted reaction – brought acclaim to the organisation.
But the exile era seems set to end, with DVB announcing its plans to return home.
DVB’s head office in Norway is almost closed, except for some administrative staff and servers – and the site will be shut by year’s end. All of DVB’s journalists have been relocated to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, temporarily head office for the organisation.
Deputy executive director of DVB U Khin Maung Win told The Myanmar Times the relocation was difficult but it was time to return to Myanmar.
“It is very emotional both personally and organisationally to leave Norway because we have received so much support from the Norwegian people and government over the years. But when we first started out in Norway, it was because we weren’t allowed to report freely in Myanmar,” he said.
“But the situation has changed and because of the reforms in the past year it is now possible. Our former underground reporters in the country get official press accreditation, so it is time to return,” he added.
But before the editorial office in Norway was closed, DVB had one last interview to conduct in Norway – a face-to-face with President U Thein Sein, who was visiting Norway on a European trip.
“It felt like a milestone for our media organisation. It was the first time we got an exclusive interview with the president and it was an indicator that we are now treated as a professional independent media organisation,” U Khin Maung Win said.
U Khin Maung Win was among the student activists who fled what was then Burma in 1988, before making his way with others to Norway. From Norway the young activists watched the National League for Democracy’s victory in the 1990 elections and the subsequent annulment and house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi.
U Khin Maung Win was one of four who started broadcasting DVB in 1992 – the year after Suu Kyi’s family received the Nobel Prize on her behalf. Three of the four founding members are still working with DVB. He added that DVB mostly broadcast speeches and slogans in the beginning, aiming to reinforce and encourage the democracy movement.
But the organisation slowly expanded, forming a network of journalists inside Myanmar, who secretly reported what happened in the closed country.
Thereafter, DVB established a local office in Chiang Mai to receive information and pass it to Oslo.
U Khin Maung Win said the office in Thailand is acting as the organisation’s head office but only until DVB can broadcast from inside Myanmar.
Last year U Khin Maung Win and several other DVB leaders visited Myanmar for the first time since 1988 to seek approval to establish the organisation in the country.
“It is not yet possible to move our whole operation to Myanmar because we still need a license. We are in the beginning phase of getting one, and I think it is just a matter of months before we get the license,” said U Khin Maung Win.
“On our visit we also found out that there were people who regularly monitored our broadcast. They needed to monitor all foreign broadcasters to report to the ministers and the government what the foreign broadcasters were saying about the country.
“But I also believe that the government needed to listen to foreign media to get information on issues that they would not get from their own media,” he said.
He added that an operating license is just one of multiple challenges that must be overcome before DVB can operate properly in Myanmar.
“The technical infrastructure is just not good enough in Myanmar. To work as a broadcasting media organisation the internet, telecommunications system and satellite uplinks should all be in place and there shouldn’t be a single second where the electricity is down – that is the biggest obstacle to move broadcasting to the country,” he said.
“It is still quite early to say when we can move all operations to Myanmar. But we are hoping to be broadcasting from inside the country as soon as possible but that is beyond our control,” U Khin Maung Win said.
Besides the technical infrastructure, DVB is also waiting to see the draft on the media law for broadcasting media because it will not make any compromises when it comes to editorial independence, he said.
“When the media law is published we will give our comments, if we have any, to make sure that the media law not include any censorship, so that we can report freely and independently.”
However, U Khin Maung Win said there is one compromise that DVB will have to make.
“In our conversations about the license with the government we were told that we would not be allowed to use‘Burma’ in our name. We will not change our name to Myanmar, so instead we will only use the initials ‘DVB’ from now on.”