As censorship eases in Myanmar and the press tastes long-suppressed freedom, exiled media groups are weighing up the risks of a return to cover the dramatic changes in their country from within.
Not long ago, working for one of them could result in a lengthy prison sentence if caught inside the army-dominated nation, but the past year’s political opening has turned recent pipe dreams into real ambitions.
Exiled reporting groups want permission to return to Myanmar, but only when they are sure there will be no turning back on the new regime’s radical steps towards reforms.
“It is our dream to publish a publication or online magazine inside Burma. I hope it will happen soon,” said Aung Zaw, founder of the Irrawaddy news Web site based in Thailand.
The journalist has just completed his first trip to Myanmar since he escaped after a popular uprising in 1988 was brutally crushed by the junta. This time, he came back charmed.
“I think the authorities will consider my proposal if we want to publish inside Burma,” he said.
Over the past year the government of Burmese President Thein Sein, a former general who took over from the junta in March last year, has overseen dramatic political reforms, including in the media.
Censorship, already softened, will supposedly disappear all together. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, released from house arrest in late 2010, has crept on to the front pages, while exiled media Web sites are no longer blocked.
Even imprisoned journalists from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a broadcasting group based in Oslo, were released last month in a mass amnesty for political prisoners.
For the exiles, what remains is the strategic question of timing. According to Aung Zaw, senior journalists have suggested that the Irrawaddy should “remain here in Thailand until 2015” until the reforms become well entrenched.
“Laws that restrict press freedom are still there,” so “it is too risky” for them to return now, said Maung Maung Myint, chairman of the Burma Media Association based in Oslo, whose members are mostly exiled journalists.
In the capital of Naypyidaw, the Burmese Ministry of Information said that the way is clear. Ministry Director-General Ye Htut said that there was “no -restriction” on the media in exile.
“We only ask for fair and balanced reporting,” he said.
However, the new press legislation under development is limited to print media. Even if the law entered into force, “pluralism and good practices will still be missing,” said Benjamin Ismail, head of the Asia bureau at media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris.
In terms of press freedom, Myanmar is still ranked 169th out of 179 countries, according to an index by RSF published last month.
Exiled media therefore have no choice but to take things step by step. The editor of Mizzima, a news agency based in India, told the Myanmar Times that, as with the Irrawaddy, it too was “ready to set up an office in Yangon.”
As for the DVB, the first step is “legalizing DVB’s operation in the country” and preventing further arrests, according to DVB deputy director Khin Maung Win.
The government is closely linked to the previous military rulers, who “treated DVB as the enemy,” he said.
Although the group is still considered illegal, the new regime has behaved differently, for example by accepting interview requests from DVB reporters.