In pursuit of a dream
Mizzima – an overview
New Delhi, India, nearly 1,500 miles removed from the streets of Rangoon and an unlikely destination for most Burmese refugees and exiles, may seem an odd location from which to initiate a campaign for freedom of the press and democracy against Burma’s military establishment, but it was off the congested and boisterous streets of the Indian capital that Mizzima was born. Ten years after the fateful 8-8-88 uprising in Burma, three veterans of the Burmese struggle for democracy came together to found Mizzima News Agency in New Delhi in August of 1998.
It has been said that, “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.” In Burma, under military rule since 1962, this adage has unfortunately proven all too true. In the poverty stricken Southeast Asian country there are not even the scantest of visages of freedom of the press. All news outlets are either state-owned and operated or fall under the strict and comprehensive surveillance of the state’s censorship board and publication laws. The myopic interpretation of what counts for a responsible and acceptable press environment was spelled out by the regime’s Information Minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, in a copy of a secret governmental circulation obtained by Mizzima in October, 2008. “In the press censorship policy adopted,” articulated the Information Minister, “positive writing on government departmental news has been allowed. Thus the government departments should understand this situation and should cooperate to some extent with the private media for the benefit of their departments.”
Having languished for over 45 years in a suffocating environment, it may be forgotten that Burma actually has a long and proud tradition of literary debate and free press. The country’s first newspaper, the English-language Maulmain Chronicle, appeared in 1836. And throughout the remaining years of the 19th century and up until the military coup of 1962, Burmese media, buoyed by a strong commitment to literacy and education, continued to grow. But, for over four decades now, military rule has drawn the curtain on freedom of the press in Burma.
Yet, for a few chaotic weeks in 1988, as the future of the country was held in flux – there was again an opening for independent publication, and testimony to the Burmese population’s desire for a range of information and opinion, dozens of independent journals and pamphlets flooded the streets, covering a range of political, social and economic views. In fact, there was even some question the year previously as to whether Burma technically qualified for Least Developed Country (LDC) status, though eventually recognized as such, due to its high level of literacy, estimated to be 90 percent.
But the brief respite in 1988 was very much an apparition of what has otherwise been an increasingly hostile environment to a free press. The list of government legislation and diktats aimed at stifling any semblance of freedom of the press is extensive, including:
Printers and Publishers Registration Act – Promulgated in 1962, it prohibits publications or materials that go against the interests of the government. The penalties for violators of this Act range from the banning of an article to seven years in jail.
Computer Science Development Law, 1996 and 2002 – Limits freedom of expression, especially in the context of Internet technology development, and bans the operation of unlicensed computer networks connected with overseas networks. Offenders face 15 years in jail.
TV and Video Law of 1985 – Imposes harsh limits on the access of Burmese people to TV and video technologies. The law mandates authorization to get access to a TV set.
The Official Secrets Act – Adopted 80 years ago by the British, it is a classic law for protecting so-called Official or State Secrets. It has been used against people for expressing themselves peacefully.
Confronted with such a draconian and monolithic media environment inside Burma, Mizzima was formed by Burmese exiles with an understanding of the importance, for both Burmese citizens and the rest of the world, of educating and informing people on the events and truthful nature of life in Burma. In essence, Mizzima empowers the Burmese people by serving as its own press, providing an alternative voice to that of the state-run media. Yet, making Mizzima a reality was no easy task, while the broader goal of helping to bring freedom of the press and democracy to Burma remains formidable.
Mizzima, derived from the Pali word for middle or moderate and chosen for its inference of an unbiased and independent media, could at first count among its assets three people – Soe Myint, Thin Thin Aung and Win Aung – and a solitary laptop computer. Any financial assistance was hard to come by and the founding members of the news agency were forced, initially, to spend their own hard earned savings to keep their dream of Mizzima, and that of Burma, alive. Ever so slowly, however, at least one of the dreams can definitively be said to have started to materialize.
Initially receiving external funding from George Soros’ Open Society Institute (OSI) in 2000, the relevance and professionalism of Mizzima’s work is reflected in its steadily growing budgetary allotment, which has also permitted it to increase the number of staff employed while enhancing its geographic outreach and coverage. From a budget of just over $30,000 in 2003, five years later Mizzima is able to project a budgetary capacity topping half a million dollars, with a target of $700,000 for 2009.
But success was never guaranteed, and September 2007 was in many ways a watershed for Burma and those individuals and organizations involved in the ongoing struggle to restore rights to the Burmese populace. In terms of overthrowing the military dictatorship or bringing drastic change to the politically fractured nation, the Saffron Revolution ultimately fell short of its immediate goals. However, it was also very much a success story. One aspect of that success was witnessed in the form of the exile-based media, through which the unfolding events in Burma in late September were remarkably and extensively captured in words, pictures and video. This stood in stark contrast to the events of 1988, when images and news from the streets of Rangoon failed to assert themselves onto television screens and the front pages of the world’s newspapers. The stories and images of the 2007 uprising captured the hearts and minds of not just Burmese, but people from all corners of the world. And Mizzima, stretching its then existent assets to their fullest, was one of the leading news agencies that brought the stories to the public.
At the height of the protests and the military’s ensuing crackdown on protesters, daily visits to Mizzima’s English language website rose dramatically from some 2,500 per day before the monks took en masse to the streets of Burma, to 300,000 on September 27, the day when the Burmese military and riot police brutally put an end to any hopes for change. People from all corners of the world turned to Mizzima for news, pictures and analysis of the events unfolding inside Burma, with visitors from Singapore, the United States and Thailand topping the list.
Subscription requests came in from as far afield as Hawaii in the United States and Ankara, Turkey. There was an offer for editorial assistance from South Africa, well-wishers from Australia and messages of solidarity with the work of Mizzima’s team from readers in Italy and France. From Germany a reader wrote in the midst of the ongoing military crackdown: “I am struck by the poignancy of your reportage and photography. I am deeply proud of the Burmese monks and their supporters.”
Burmese government censors closely monitor Internet activity, blocking several news services – including Mizzima’s. Mizzima itself had been publicly condemned prior to the dramatic events of 2007 by the junta’s Information Minister. Yet inside Burma, at a critical juncture for the country’s future, a person, or persons, took it upon themselves to create a replicate of the Mizzima Burmese webpage to allow Internet users in Burma to view coverage of the protests via proxy.
Additionally, major international news services with budgets and resources far outstripping anything Mizzima could dream of, turned to the Burmese exile-run media for content on what was transpiring in Rangoon and throughout the country. Reuters, BBC and CNN all requested material and/or interviews with Mizzima editors at this volatile time in the country’s history. BBC, having circulated a request for images from the streets of Burma, was greeted with suggestions to reference Mizzima’s photo blog site.
But it was not only major news publications. The story of tens of thousands of Burmese citizens rallying around a pillar of monks, civilians linking hands on either flank of a river of saffron robes, touched people around the world. Requests for information and the right to reprint Mizzima material came forward from the likes of Worker’s Cause, a leftist Brazilian publication, as well as from “the biggest daily newspaper” in Slovenia.
From early days of relative obscurity and modest outreach, Mizzima had definitively come of age.
Growing from its original labor disposition of three activists in 1988, Mizzima now boasts a workforce of some 50 full and part-time employees, based regionally in India, Thailand, Burma, Bangladesh and China. To supplement the work of its reporters and staff, Mizzima maintains a head office in New Delhi, India, news bureaus in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and Kolkata, India, and a liaison office in the Thai capital of Bangkok. Significantly, following the success of Mizzima in covering the Saffron Revolution, funding became available to support an additional nine Units inside Burma, whereas at the time of the 2007 protests Mizzima was able to supply only three.
It did not take long for the growth of Mizzima to pay dividends. One result of the 2007 uprising was to impel Burma’s governing junta to proceed apace with their 7-step roadmap to democracy in an effort to quell mounting international criticism of its continued heavy-handed rule. In February of 2008, state media let it be known that a constitutional referendum was to be held in three months’ time in May – for a constitution that took 14 years to write through a process that failed to include many voices and parties, most notably that of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Burma’s independent media community sprang to action. Mizzima, sending additional reporters inside Burma to cover the proceedings, produced special referendum coverage to educate and inform voters and the international community as to the content of the junta’s draft constitution and the ramifications of its approval. This material was collated along with a collection of “Vote ‘No’” songs onto CDs and thumb drives and distributed inside and outside Burma. Additionally, Mizzima was able to publish an opinion poll of prospective voters as to their views of the constitution – the results of which drastically clashed with the purported over 92 percent approval the junta eventually claimed was garnered. According to the survey conducted by Mizzima in the days immediately leading up to the May 10 referendum date, support for the referendum constituted a mere 17 percent of the electorate, with 28 percent stating their decided disapproval of the draft constitution.
Yet, as fate would have it, Mizzima’s full potential in covering events in Burma was realized for an altogether different story. Just one week before the referendum was to take place, a devastating cyclone tore through Burma’s Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions. However, with its eye ever-trained on events unfolding in Burma, Mizzima was not caught entirely unaware – unlike most major news outlets. Reporting on the possible danger of the storm days before it made landfall, Mizzima’s logistical support for May 10th’s constitutional referendum was easily refocused in order to cover the effects of Cyclone Nargis and the unfolding stories of the government and public’s response to the humanitarian disaster and the efforts of the international community to come to the aid of those afflicted by Nargis – whose final death toll approached 130,000, while placing an additional two million people in need of relief and launching a vast campaign of rehabilitation that local non-governmental organizations estimate will take some five years to complete.
Partly owing to technological and labor advances made possible in the wake of the Saffron Revolution, Mizzima was able to provide in-depth, LIVE coverage of Cyclone Nargis. A special section was added to the websites to facilitate the collation of news and stories associated with the cyclone, while the enhanced capacity of Mizzima to relay visual images from inside Burma to the rest of the world spawned the innovation of Mizzima’s fourth domain, www.mizzimaphoto.com. Burmese and foreign journalists on Mizzima’s payroll were able to penetrate the delta region, the latter increasingly operating in collaboration with the established informal network of Mizzima contacts in the local media industry, as the military government methodically sought to cordon off the worst effected areas in a further effort to stem the flow of information.
Recipient of the International Press Institute’s (IPI) “Free Media Pioneer 2007” award, a member of the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) and partner organization of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), the evolution of Mizzima from a borrowed telephone line ten years previously is truly spectacular.