J-School in the Land of the Junta

Can Burma build a free media or will the government’s new soft-sell propaganda win out?

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.

The resulting changes in tone and presentation -- from stilted and at times belligerent toward government opponents to something approaching the look and feel of real journalism -- have been noticeable. But there is still a long way to go. While some state-run outlets have been running riskier op-eds, including about the need for democratic reform, and reports about fires and traffic accidents (surprisingly not covered under the junta) they have thus far ignored sensitive issues like the country's ethnic tensions. In the days after violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the city of Meiktila claimed dozens of lives in March, the New Light focused instead on President Thein Sein's trips to Australia, New Zealand and Vietnam. In addition, they rarely acknowledge the existence of the country's most popular politician, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is a topic of endless fascination for the private press.

The public face of this push for change is Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut. A former lieutenant colonel, Ye Htut was part of delegations that visited Europe to observe how independent media functions in Western democracies. During these visits, "we clearly saw the danger of media monopoly and too much commercialization of media," Ye Htut told me. The answer for Burma, Ye Htut and his allies decided, would be a public-service model similar to the BBC and Scandinavia's publicly funded broadcasters. In keeping with those examples, Ye Htut insists that the ministry wants no editorial control, and will supervise the operations of state-run outlets through a governing body.

Winning the trust of the public would appear to be the biggest challenge. Other than North Korea's or Iran's official press, it's difficult to think of one less credible -- and at times unintentionally comic -- than Burma's under the junta. An example from 2007, memorialized on YouTube, is typical. A stern-faced anchor from English-language MRTV-3 warns citizens not to take part in the ongoing Saffron Revolution -- in which the junta brutally suppressed a monk-led national anti-government movement -- as text flashes on the screen describing the BBC and VOA as "sky-full of liars." When state-run outlets weren't threatening government opponents or disparaging Aung San Suu Kyi, they ran dull footage of junta officials visiting temples and inaugurating infrastructure projects, hardly the sort of content that would engender trust, much less build any sort of audience.

Yet a Gallup poll from 2012 tells a more complex story. Burmese trust official outlets only slightly less than the BBC and Radio Free Asia. In addition, 52 percent of respondents said they found official media to be more trustworthy at the time of the survey than six months before. Burmese sources I spoke to were astonished by these numbers. "I have great regard for Gallup, but in this case I can't accept their findings or the conclusion they have drawn," said Pe Myint, a well-known author and journalist. "People may sometimes try to confirm what they have heard by checking with government announcements in state-owned newspapers, radio and TV. But most of the people know that those are government propaganda outlets." Perhaps that is the point: as long as state-run media avoid reporting on sensitive topics, the audience can be expected to more or less trust their reporting on quotidian matters like presidential trips abroad and commodity prices. It's also possible, of course, that a public with very little recent experience with a free media trusts state-controlled outlets because there's never been an alternative.

Whatever the reasons for this relatively high level of trust, it bodes well for the transformation process, as the example of the former Soviet Union shows. Under communism, faith in the state-run media was also high. "Some people certainly doubted what they read and saw. But the majority felt that most programs were trustworthy, with a few exceptions," said Jeremy Druker, who as head of Transitions, a Prague-based non-profit media organization, has followed post-Soviet media for 20 years. For that reason, a surprisingly large number of former propaganda outlets have fared well since 1989.

In the Czech Republic, for instance, state-run television successfully transitioned into public-service broadcasting with barely a blip. Mladá fronta Dnes, the country's former socialist youth daily, is now one of the most respected papers in the country, while Právo, which has its roots in Rudé právo, the former mouthpiece of the Czech Communist Party, is now independent and widely read. The picture gets mixed as you head farther east, where directors and high-level editorial staff tend to be the same people as under communism. According to Druker, the outlets that performed best acted quickly to establish new leadership and assert their editorial independence. "They earned credibility by getting rid of everyone," he said. Whether Burma can do the same -- employees in state-run media will be none too eager to lose their jobs -- remains to be seen. "They have some concerns," Ye Htut admitted, but "we are conducting orientation courses for them."

While changes in the print sphere have been fast-moving and laudable, the government is moving much more cautiously with broadcast. The reasons for this are obvious: few people outside of cities actually read newspapers and magazines. TV and radio is where the action -- the audience, the influence and the money -- is. That same Gallup poll found that the vast majority of Burmese get their news from radio (62 percent) and TV (45 percent), with print (15 percent) a distant fourth, behind friends and family. This is where Burma starts to look less like the Czech Republic and more like some of its Asian neighbors. In countries like Malaysia and Cambodia, which hold elections and don't officially censor journalists, entrenched ruling parties control radio and TV through a combination of patronage and licensing. Print and online journalists are allowed to write more or less what they want, providing the window dressing of a free press while influential and heavily pro-government broadcast stations help keep the ruling parties in power.

Aye Chan Naing, head of the Democratic Voice of Burma, which produces radio and satellite broadcasts from Norway and Thailand, has experienced these restrictions firsthand. He approached the Ministry of Information in February 2012 about setting up official operations in the country, but a prohibitive and confusing licensing process has left DVB waiting on the sidelines. "They have told us to wait until the new broadcast law is passed in parliament. But while they're saying this, they're expanding all of their channels. They're moving quickly," he said.

The private companies winning licenses and forming joint ventures with the government have strong political connections, which is sure to influence their content. The SkyNet satellite TV operator, which was launched by the Shwe Than Lwin company as a government joint venture in 2010, has pioneered live news broadcasts in Burma, and was the only domestic broadcaster to carry Aung San Suu Kyi's speeches on her historic trip to Europe in June 2012. "But when it comes to sensitive issues, they haven't reported thoroughly. They favor the government in their reporting," he said. And while Aye Chan Naing believes the government is serious about making state-run outlets more competitive, that doesn't necessarily mean the authorities are ready to relinquish editorial control. "In order to change completely, they need to change their editorial line. You have to be independent, with an editor in chief, not someone appointed by the government," he said. For his part, Pe Myint believes transforming former propaganda organs into public-service outlets is a step too far. "I don't think state-run media will become something like Myanmar BBC. It will be difficult for them to change that much," he said.

If the government does successfully make the transition, it's unclear whether the next generation of journalists working in state-run media will be ready to make the most of these changes. At the Myanmar Media Development Center, which is designed to act as a pipeline of young talent for MRTV4, I asked Sucker if I could speak to some students interested in careers as journalists. After poring through the class list, he managed to find only a few with journalistic ambitions. They harbor few illusions about the challenges they face after graduation. "If you're a journalist, you have to ask tough questions. But we're shy and not used to questioning people above us," said Aye Chan Zaw. As a tech-savvy, educated young person who gets his news from Yahoo and Facebook, Aye Chan Zaw seems like just the kind of person to help guide Burma's state-run media into the future. "Journalism? I don't know," he said. "I'd really like to direct movies. Maybe I'll change my mind one day."

Soe Than WIN/AFP/GettyImages


In the Hills of Alawistan

In Syria’s beautiful northwest, all is peaceful. But death is never far away.

TARTOUS, Syria — Above the Syrian coastal town of Tartous, groups of Alawite men and boys were amassing at different landings along a road that winds higher and higher, away from the Mediterranean and into the hills. We saw them assembling as we traveled the same path, taking advantage of a day off to get out of the city.

On this new spring Sunday, they were waiting for the corpses of Alawite soldiers -- conscripts in the Syrian Army -- to arrive from below. A funeral procession was building, one motorcycle at a time, one open-cabbed truck at a time, each laden with several passengers. The mothers and wives were recognizable in their black clothes with sheer white scarves draped around their necks, which have become public uniform once a family has been anointed with loss.

Those gathering affixed to their cars large posters of the men and boys, showing the fallen still alive, posing in uniform or with a gun. Many were quite young, the tickle of mustaches below their noses not withstanding. A photo of President Bashar al-Assad, sporting sunglasses and military fatigues, often hovered above their images, assuming a posture of determination and leadership -- his finger pointing to something in the horizon that we cannot see. Is it a goal, a future, a death?

Many of these soldiers died in places far away from where they grew up in these hills, which like the entire Tartous region is relatively peaceful -- compared to the varying degrees of hell being experienced in other parts of the country. Throughout my several-day stay in April, there were no sounds of gunfire, shelling, or bombardments, sounds regularly heard in Damascus. We were protected by a bubble that we nonetheless knew a thousand pins -- of revenge, reckoning, and reality -- would one day burst.

Though home to Sunnis and Christians  as well, the coastal region and its peaks have become an Alawite stronghold. The Alawites, a heterodox Muslim sect from which Assad also hails, had escaped past religious persecution here. Once the lowest rung of society, their daughters had been maids in many Syrians' homes and their sons had joined the armed forces for lack of other opportunities. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar's father and the dictator before him, had come from their ranks, and when he seized power, the fortune of many -- though hardly all -- of the sect's members improved. 

The Assads themselves come from nearby Qardaha, a village located above Latakia, which lies north of Tartous along the Mediterranean. Many have speculated that Bashar has kept the coastal regions and their hills secure should he need to beat a retreat from Damascus (or as a possible location for a future Alawite state should Syria end up in pieces). Indeed, before Israel's raid outside the capital dominated all the headlines, disturbing allegations emerged of massacres of Sunnis in Banyas and al Bayda, areas that would be incorporated in any such Alawistan.

Though these hills are hardly exclusively Alawite, it is clearly Alawi territory. The few road signs here direct travelers to the tomb of Saleh al-Ali, an Alawite leader who opposed French rule in the 1920s. A statue of Ali graces the entrance to the village of Sheikh Badr, which sits along the ever-climbing road that reaches toward the site of pilgrimage for Alawites and the government officials who ceremoniously visit on Independence Day. He appears victorious cast in stone, a rifle raised high into the air. His triumph, however, is somewhat belied by disproportionately sized head and limbs that made him look cartoonish.

Here, the hills are verdant and gently terraced. A Damascene used to the barren embrace of Mount Qassioun, which overlooks the Syrian capital, would easily be forgiven for feeling a tinge of envy. Yet for a region that was supposed to be protected and privileged, it is still remarkably underdeveloped. The modesty, if not poverty, of the homes was interrupted only rarely by a luxurious villa belonging to someone known to be close to the regime. The road was just enough to be functional.

Weren't 40 years of Assad rule supposed to have made Alawites the best off in Syria? Weren't they facing impending retaliatory massacre for having thrown in their lot with the sons of these hills?

Had they been swindled?

The legend of Saleh al-Ali shines a light on how the myth of Alawite privilege never quite corresponded to the reality. As a well-respected historian told me, Ali was a petty nationalist inflated into gigantic proportions by Syria's first president, Shukri al-Quwatli. His goal was to give the Alawites an alternate hero after the government hung cult leader Suleiman al-Murshed, who had led an Alawite revolt against the newly independent state in 1946. 

Passing the statue, a woman from a village atop another hill shrugged, under her breath: "He used to steal chickens from my great-grandfather."

Further up the twisting road, each turn offering a view more stunning, we pulled over to take in a dramatic vista, joining several others in quiet reverie. With one's back to the line of coffins coming up the road, the violence encircling Syria might as well have been in a different country. A patchwork of different shades of green -- pine, olive, cypress, grass -- and their different textures lit up each time the sun ventured from behind the several hanging clouds. Children were subdued, couples held hands, young men smoked cigarettes.

Of course, they people here want to protect this splendor and tranquility. But what had it cost Syria for this area to avoid the fate of the rest of the country? Did its survival necessitate the destruction of so many other places? What would it cost these hills once the misguided yet inevitable calls for vengeance and retribution pierced this bubble? Was it too late to alter this zero-sum formula by which Syria was being destroyed and re-imagined?

The breeze carried with it the scent of burning trash -- the lack of effective government waste removal was another hint that this was hardly some lavish enclave of wealthy oligarchs. The air here was already several degrees colder than where we had begun our trip, at sea level. Its briskness and its smell hurried our return to the road.

Descending back to Tartous, the road -- generally wide enough for a lane of traffic going each direction with room for passing -- was overtaken by the funeral convoy that had caught up from below. The vehicles on our side pulled over to give way.

The women's faces were contorted in pain as they walked next to a small white van carrying the bodies. Young men revved their motorcycles while keeping the slow pace, and the boys standing on the back of the bikes occasionally broke a smile before remembering the solemnity of the occasion.

A dissident -- who happens to be Alawite and who had finally just been smuggled to safety in Beirut after being under virtual house arrest for the past year -- explained to me that defecting for a member of his sect carries greater costs than for other Syrians. "A Sunni can escape to Turkey or to his home village; if he's an Alawi, the regime will kill him and his family, or his own village will do it," he said. "He's dead either way."

Armed checkpoints awaited us on our descent. Cars patiently queued, drivers obligingly rolling down their windows to present the ID cards of all the men (and the women, if asked) and popping the trunk when demanded. Some of the men who guarded these checkpoints worked for the regular army, while other belonged to local pro-regime militias. Some wore combat boots but others were in sneakers, loafers, or even flip-flops; several of their guns seemed held together by duct tape. Most had managed to find a pair of camouflaged pants and many wore what appeared to be newly minted black baseball caps with a Syrian flag motif, suggesting "Team Syria" had just won a pennant somewhere.

Once these men waved a car along, the window was rolled back up, the trunk shut, and conversation or silence resumed. Except, of course, in those cases where the passengers once sufficiently out of earshot cursed the house, father, religion, mothers, sisters, or some combination thereof of the soldiers or shabiha (militiamen) to whom they had just submitted.

Closer to the water, groves of orange trees had blossomed and the air was perfumed -- a scent Syrians bottle in mazahar (orange blossom water) and then use for sweets, drinks, and even on the skin. Before these years changed the meaning of every place in Syria, this fragrance was as essential to my memories of Tartous as freshly caught branzino and the languid life of a town by the sea.

We were waved through another checkpoint and entered Bseereh, an area where many residents of Tartous have waterfront flats. The road narrowed, lowering us to the level of the coast. Tall wetland grasses brushed against the car as we navigated our way. Any spare soil between the buildings was used to cultivate vegetables. Between the Mediterranean and us were the pastel-colored beachfront chalets that used to be full of beachgoers and fun-seekers in the summer months. They were now already crammed with Syrians from the provinces of Aleppo, Homs, and Hama who had fled the violence. Several hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people have reportedly found shelter here. These Syrians are immediately identifiable by the locals -- generally more conservatively dressed, with cars bearing license plates from other parts of the country.

At the shore, several of these displaced families had gathered. Women in full black abaya and hijab watched as excited children ran barefoot through the sand.

"They must be from Aleppo. It's not yet warm enough to swim," said a young Tartous native, pointing to little boys wading in the water as it rocked against the sand.

Watching them as they jumped, splashed, and laughed in the sea, he added, "Let them enjoy it while they can."