The former propaganda newspaper "Global New Light" is now a mouthpiece for the democratic government. It cannot report freely.
Newspaper vendors in Yangon: State newspapers compete with private media Photo: imago/ZUMA Press
The shiny silver cord of the telephone connects Aye Min Soe with the "Man in the clouds", the man from the clouds. It stands on an oilcloth tablecloth on Aye Min Soe’s desk in the mint-green-painted editorial offices of the Global New Light of Myanmar, the English-language state newspaper that still exists even though Burma has had a democratic government for almost a year.
Aye Min Soe, a quiet man with thinning hair, runs the newsroom. To him, everything still makes sense. "The government owns us, so we write in its spirit," says the 39-year-old. He kneads his fist unsteadily on a regular basis. The Ministry of Information calls a few times a month, he says. Former employees claim the phone rings every evening. On the line is the man from the clouds.
Censorship ranges from cute interventions, such as banning broken pagoda tops on unprominent spots in the newspaper – Burmese might take that as an omen of government failure – to removing opposition voices. "Yet the man in the clouds barely knows English," Aye Min Soe reveals, allowing himself to smile a bit.
Once upon a time, the National League for Democracy of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi condemned propaganda media. Today, she makes use of them herself. It seems that the democracy fighters of yesteryear have taken a liking to the instruments of the dictatorship era, now that they have taken a look inside the grab bag.
"Since when do democracies need a state media?" Kyaw Min Swe says indignantly. He edits Burma’s daily newspaper, The Voice, and helped build Burma’s Press Council. An old companion from those days is acting Information Minister Pe Myint. He used to call for the abolition of propaganda newspapers, but now he is their top boss.
The turning point for journalism in Burma was 2012, when press censorship was abolished after half a century of military dictatorship. Five years later, journalists still struggle with intimidation, difficult access to information and a lack of professional training facilities.
In the Ministry of Information, a high-ranking official, who ironically is reluctant to provide information and does not want to read his name in a newspaper, only says that it is not propaganda, but information, and that this is democratic.
The Global New Light is aimed at diplomats, investors and an English-speaking domestic audience. The Burmese consume it in English courses to learn vocabulary, while foreigners smile wearily or sneer at it. Often, the unintentionally funny propaganda in Burma goes viral on social networks. Despite all the ridicule, the newspaper is noticed, as it is the only channel besides Facebook on which the government communicates with the outside world.
"A slap in the face for private media
At a media conference in May, Information Minister Pe Myint made his position clear: "State media are a bridge between the government and the people." In addition to the English-language Global New Light, the government owns two other newspapers.
Aye Min Soe, editorial director
"The government owns us, so we write in its spirit"
"It’s a slap in the face to the private media that the government thinks it needs its own media to communicate with the people," says newspaper editor Kyaw Min Swe, also citing harmful competition. Thanks to subsidies, the state media could be distributed nationwide and would thus poach advertisers from the private media.
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In the process, after the generals decided to democratize Burma in 2010, things were supposed to change for Global New Light, too. In 2013, a Burmese businessman living in Japan bought 49 percent of the business shares, and a year later the Japanese news agency Kyodo News began supporting the editorial team. With a new printing press, color fiascos were soon history, editors were flown to Tokyo for training and foreign journalists were brought onto the team to establish international standards.
The source of propaganda always remained the Myanmar News Agency. Thiri, who prefers not to appear with her real name in this text, wrote texts for the Global New Light for four years at the state-owned news agency, which is also physically located in the Ministry of Information.
Free reporting only with permission
She takes great pleasure in recounting how her editor-in-chief and she regularly disregarded directives from the ministry. Because, contrary to what was promised during the democratic awakening, the news agency was never transformed into a public service medium by the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party. Frustrated, Thiri therefore quit at the beginning of the year. Still, things were not that bad, he said. "If the ministry gave us permission, then we could report freely," she says. She doesn’t realize how little sense her statement makes.
Thiri, like many in Burma, believes that the Global New Light’s reporting, while measured by democratic and journalistic standards, is not flawless. It sounds like something out of a generals’ propaganda textbook when she says, "But our country is still unstable now." Therefore, she says, the government must keep the situation under control.
Under control hardly seems to be the case in Burma at the moment. Civil war has flared up again in the north of the country, repressive junta-era legislation is leading to arrests every other day, and in the west of the country, 65,000 members of a Muslim minority have fled to Bangladesh. They report arson, murder and rape by soldiers.
The Global New Light printed almost daily for weeks statements from the government, still coping with a powerful military, denying allegations and accusing international media and human rights groups of lying.
Will the Global New Light end up doing the government more harm than good? "In any case, a serious government would not be so clumsy and would instead be much more likely to spread the word that it wants to investigate the allegations," says David Mathieson, until recently Burma expert at Human Rights Watch.
Editorial director Aye Min Soe groans softly, as he always does when he thinks long and hard about whether and how to answer a question. "We certainly need to become more professional," he says. In the days of the military junta, he risked a lot under a pseudonym, writing for a media in exile alongside his job at the state newspaper.
Just as he did then, he’d like to research this one story on agricultural policy right now. "The government is taking a completely wrong approach to the issue," he says eagerly. Whether he can get past the man from the clouds with that, though, is doubtful.
Aye Min Soe accompanies outside. The sun is low by now. It’s Saturday, late afternoon. He seems to want to get rid of something. I didn’t cast a vote, he says. You didn’t vote for the NLD? No, he doesn’t mean it that way. He smiles shyly. He didn’t vote at all. "A good journalist doesn’t take sides," he says. Then he walks back through the dusty courtyard to his desk, to the phone with the silver cord, and will lift a Foreign Ministry scolding of Malaysia to the front page.