Myanmar broadcast media awakening caught on film

Documentary maker Turid Rogne: 'It is rare to be able to follow media history in the making'. (Photo by Kavi Chongkittavorn)

"It is a great living experience," said film-maker Turid Rogne, 41, who has spent the past six years tracking the reporters of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) inside Myanmar. Her aim was to capture their media investigations and activities on film during the good and bad times after the Thein Sein government opened up the media landscape in Myanmar at the end of 2011.

Rogne has been able to follow up close the evolution of the DVB, the country's first non-profit independent public broadcast channel, through its editor-in-chief, Aye Chan Naing, 52, who returned to Yangon in February 2012. After the 1988 uprising, he had gone into exile as a young student, along with thousands of other students and demonstrators. On the day he left home, he left a farewell note to his parents under his pillow, writing that he would come back soon. He would not return for 24 years.

In 1992, with the help of friends and supporters in Norway and Sweden, he set up a clandestine radio station broadcasting from Oslo, Norway. For over a decade, DVB radio was the only independent source of information from iron-clad Myanmar. From humble beginnings, the petite radio station expanded from a half-hour to a full-hour broadcast several times a day. In May 2005, with the proliferation of satellite dishes, the DVB began its first satellite TV news feeds.

Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs.

Prior to the end of media censorship in 2011, common folk caught listening to DVB faced punishment. Due to the tight control of news reporting under military rule, the DVB's editorial staff developed a web of clandestine journalists, known as "VJ" (video journalists), who would use mini-video camcorders to film and conduct interviews away from official eyes. Then they would find ways to sneak out video clips through a pool of secret couriers taking flights to the Thai-Myanmar border or other undisclosed destinations.

The most famous clip was the shooting of a Japanese photographer on Sept 27, 2007, recorded by a DVB reporter from a nearby rooftop that was sneaked out of Myanmar and broadcast around the world.

The first half of her one-hour film, Democracy Road, chronicled the evolution of DVB inside Myanmar. The first chapter titled "The Return" follows Aye Chan Naing's first trip back home, followed by a second chapter "The Road" about the preparations for and anxiety about moving DVB's operations to Myanmar.

The film's most important footage begins early when Aye Chan Naing went to Nay Pyi Taw to meet Minister of Information Kyaw Hsan and his aide, Ye Htut, who was later promoted to ministerial rank and served as spokesman of former president U Thein Sein. At the meeting, surprisingly, Kyaw Hsan told him that Myanmar wanted a free media to promote democracy inside the country. He asked the DVB to help.

Rogne was able to document Aye Chan Naing's various stages of temperament. His growing anxiety ahead of the historic meeting at the Ministry of Information is obvious. To quell his anxiety, he gets a haircut at a barbershop in Bangkok, and later emerges feeling triumphant from the meeting and its almost unbelievable outcome. DVB's clandestine satellite TV could now operate inside Myanmar. But that is not the end of the story.

The film tells about the dramatic transformation of Myanmar's broadcasting media landscape. Within a short period following the government's announcement of the end of media censorship, foreign media organisations start to pour into Myanmar to provide professional and technical assistance.

Nearly 50 international media organisations from around the world established either full or partial presences in Yangon during this period.

The media landscape changed radically, all stakeholders, especially officials and journalists, were on a high learning curve.

Most importantly, Myanmar's exiled media outlets on various continents decided to set up offices in Yangon. Well-known exiled media outlets besides DVB, such as Mizzima in India and Irrawaddy in Thailand, have now all set up offices in Yangon. The DVB, with its fierce independence and high professionalism, played a key role in boosting the government's credibility and its media reform programmes.

"It is a great living experience. I was able to meet the great people of Myanmar in exile and those inside the country by travelling throughout the country," Rogne said.

Democracy Road premiered over the weekend in Yangon at the celebration of the 25th anniversary of DVB. Public viewings in Myanmar have yet to be scheduled.

The film is a must-see documentary for those wanting to understand the roller-coaster-like media development in Myanmar. The last chapter, titled "The Confrontation", tackles the changing mood in the country toward the end of the Thein Sein government and the election in November 2015, which subsequently brought the National League for Democracy to power. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was no longer under house arrest, and was now in a position more powerful than the president.

Recently DVB, along with Mizzima, were granted licences to produce content for broadcast inside the country. "It is rare to be able to follow media history in the making," Rogne concluded.

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