YANGON, Myanmar — The future of Burmese journalism is in a shopping mall. At least, that's what the government hopes. Up the glass escalators of Yangon's sparkling new Junction Square, past the ice cream parlors and kiosks offering cosmetics, jewelry and jeans, the Myanmar Media Development Center is tucked away on the third floor. Opened with great fanfare in July 2012, it is one of the few institutions training journalists in a country that until recently had very little use for them.
On a Friday afternoon in early February, I took a tour of the facility with Eberhard Sucker, its advisor and a former correspondent for Germany's international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which provides training and guidance. As Sucker energetically bounded between the windowless classrooms and surprisingly cutting-edge production studios, he introduced me to some of the 50 students in the center's inaugural class, trendy twenty-somethings with elaborate K-pop hairdos and tattoos. The government is grooming these students, most of whom are from privileged families able to afford the $2,000 tuition, to be the next generation of media professionals in state-run broadcast outlets. Among other things, they're learning how to storyboard documentaries and properly source news pieces, lessons that haven't come easy. "For over 40 years, there was no journalism here. Newsgathering consisted of calling the ministry for guidance on how to report things. Changing the mindset is the biggest challenge," Sucker said.
That there might be a future at all for the government's vast propaganda apparatus is surprising. Burma's transformation since national elections in 2010 -- which ushered in a nominally civilian government, led to a series of political reforms, and resulted in the release of hundreds of political prisoners -- has been swift and far-reaching. Nowhere have these changes been more apparent than in the media. After decades of mercilessly suppressing free speech, the Ministry of Information announced the end of pre-press censorship in August 2012. Independent publications have mushroomed, and even the exiled media organization Democratic Voice of Burma, long a thorn in the government's side, has returned to the country (although not yet officially). In early April, privately run newspapers began publishing on a daily basis after receiving government permission, a watershed move celebrated by the country's writers and editors (they could previously only publish on a weekly basis).
Given all of these changes, state-run media might feel like an anachronism, a relic of the country's authoritarian past that would struggle to compete in the new dynamic landscape. Not so, says the Ministry of Information, which has grand plans to transform its former propaganda outlets into a trusted source of public information. "If we can provide quality news and information, we can win the trust," Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut said by email from Naypyidaw, the capital.
Even taking the government at its word -- and ignoring the possibility that it's simply laying the groundwork for a "censorship light" system like in Russia -- it's a tall order. In addition to convincing the public that state-run outlets no longer toe the government line, the ministry must mold a new generation of journalists while ushering out an untold number of current employees whose skill sets are better suited to roles as bureaucrats than reporters and editors.
To jumpstart the process, the government has poured cash into sprucing up its stodgy old mouthpieces and outfitting them with the trappings of independent media. The English-language New Light of Myanmar, otherwise known as the "New Lies of Myanmar," announced in March that it is seeking a joint-venture partner to help fund a makeover, after it and two sister Burmese-language papers began printing in color and running advertisements in 2012. Meanwhile, the military launched its own English-language paper, Myawaddy, in January. On the broadcast side, the government teamed up with the Burmese privately held Forever Group in 2010 to launch the splashy MRTV4, which does entertainment and news.