Chronicling the evolution of Mizzima
Though in possession of a laptop from the outset, it was not until 2002 that Mizzima moved online. In the initial years, at a time when it was known as Mizzima News Group, the primary function of Mizzima was the collection and dissemination of news and information on Burma and Burma-related issues via Internet and fax. This task was supplemented with the organization of seminars and events on media and democracy, focusing on Burma. Located in New Delhi, the founders took advantage of their geographic locale to also deal with India-Burma relations, focusing on the role of India in the Burmese democracy movement. Meanwhile, Mizzima commenced offering internships to Burmese refugees based in India on journalism and independent media. To date, Mizzima’s internship program has benefited over 30 individuals, over half of whom continue to work for Burmese exile-media services.
Mizzima News, along with four other Burmese news organizations based in India and Bangladesh, along Burma’s western border, was also a founding member of Burma News International (BNI) in 2002. BNI was later expanded to include other Burmese news organizations based in Thailand and on the Thai-Burma border, aiming to promote Burma-related news and reports throughout South and Southeast Asia.
It was not until five years after its founding, in 2003, that Mizzima commenced in terming itself a true independent media organization. Following completion of a course in professional journalism, Sein Win became Mizzima’s first Managing Editor and Mizzima started to produce a monthly, print publication in Burmese, later also in English, called the Mizzima Monthly Journal. Further attention was given to strengthening the flow of and access to information between those inside Burma and those outside, a goal facilitated by the establishment of the inaugural Mizzima Units inside Burma.
Other activities implemented during this time and shortly thereafter included daily Internet news and features through websites and email service, journalism development and internships for young Burmese living in India and Thailand, Burma Media Alert (monitoring violations of free expression, freedom of information and media freedom, for which timely alerts are sent to the international community when such infractions occur) and online podcasting on Burma through www.mizzima.tv.
With its proven growth in outreach along with quantity and quality of product, international donors steadily took more notice of the fight of a small band of Burmese exile journalists. In 2004, Mizzima first received core financial support from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Currently, major donors to Mizzima News Agency include the London-based Open Society Institute’s Network Media Program, Washington D.C.-based National Endowment for Democracy, Denmark-based International Media Support and Netherlands-based Free Voice. However, it remains a challenge to line up donors for more than a single year at a time. Ideally, Mizzima seeks to secure three to five years grants.
Building on a history of success and bolstered by improved capacity and wider recognition, by 2008, Mizzima began the process of registration as a private limited company (Mizzima Media Pvt. Ltd) in India. Additionally, Friends of Mizzima (Australia) registered in Australia as an incorporated association to support Mizzima in its work. The potential benefits accruing from both of these events cannot be understated. A lack of legal status means that Mizzima’s operations stand an increased risk of closure if authorities in host countries are determined to take action against refugees and Burma’s exile media. It is not uncommon for the Burmese Embassy in New Delhi to pester Indian authorities, urging them to seal the gates to Mizzima’s Indian headquarters. As for the significance of a group like Friends of Mizzima (Australia), not only can the consortium be advantageous in educating and informing Australians and the Australian government on Mizzima and Burma, they can also assist in facilitating the day-to-day operations of Burma’s exile media through such acts as holding a line of credit – a simple matter for citizens of the world from developed countries but a monumental obstacle for Burmese exiles and refugees who often lack the identification and financial security to permit them to open a line of credit.
With its logistical and financial position looking more secure at the start of September 2008, compared to a year previously, Mizzima was freed to focus even more attention on the primary task at hand, to educate and inform on the situation inside Burma.
Mizzima currently maintains four websites, www.mizzima.com, www.mizzimaburmese.com, www.mizzima.tv and www.mizzimaphoto.com. Mizzima.com is an English-language site that specializes in news, articles, features, commentaries, editorials and selected photographs about Burma and related issues. Mizzimaburmese.com is a Burmese-language site dealing with similar subjects and material that targets Burmese speaking readers. Mizzima.tv creates online podcasting on Burmese stories, while mizzimaphoto.com archives photos and images from Burma and related themes. These websites comprise the main news distribution outlets for Mizzima in conjunction with the Mizzima Monthly Journal, which, in addition to selected news, articles and photos from Mizzima’s websites, also contains supplementary content such as Sports, Entertainment, General Knowledge, Astrology and additional Features.
Mizzima’s websites presently average 15,000 unique visitors a day, besides a daily email news service sent to more than 500 specific subscribers. Mizzima also sends out media alerts on Burma at an average of four alerts per month, while mizzima.tv produces an average of five stories per month plus raw footage. For foreigners interested in Burma affairs and for the Burmese Diaspora community with Internet access, Mizzima’s websites and daily email list-serve service are vital sources of up to date information on Burma.
While the nature of infrastructure, level of development and governmental oversight in Burma means that a majority of website readers reside outside Burma – less than one percent of Burma’s population is estimated to have Internet access, still around seven percent of Mizzima’s Burmese website audience originates from inside Burma. Readers of the online service outside of Burma are themselves largely members of Burmese communities abroad. The highest rates of viewing are generally from Singapore, the United States, Thailand and Malaysia. For Burmese everywhere, Mizzima has become a recognized and valuable source of news on Burma and Burma related issues.
The growth in readership and recognition of Mizzima’s online product clearly manifested itself on May 7th, 2008, when the English language site went down due to the high volume of hits. Whereas Mizzima received five million hits between May 1st and May 6th, on May 7th Mizzima experienced two million hits alone for the English-language site, as footage and details of the horrendous loss in life and livelihood following Cyclone Nargis continued to surface. Total hits for both the Burmese and English sites, during this period, averaged three million per day, while Mizzima was also able sell video footage and photographs, especially to Sky News in London, Expresso in Portugal and EPA in Europe.
The Mizzima Monthly Journal’s success and circulation also continues to evolve. From an initial run of fewer than 500 copies per month at its outset in 2003, publication has increased over eight fold. The Journal is currently published at a rate of 4,152 copies per month in Burmese and 800 copies in English, and the Journal is also now available for easy download in pdf format off both the Burmese and English websites. For 2009, Mizzima aims to publish a minimum of 5,000 copies per month in Burmese as well as 1,000 copies of the Journal’s English language version.
The primary target audience for the Journal is Burmese residing inside the country, as well as the Diaspora community, especially Burmese refugees and migrant workers in India, Thailand and Bangladesh, aiming to keep these populations updated on the daily situation in Burma. These are also populations that are less likely to have regular, or any, access to the Internet. Journal copies in English target Indian communities – mainly in New Delhi, Kolkata and the Northeastern states of India that share a border with Burma. Within Indian society, readers include policy makers, journalists, politicians, intellectuals, lawyers and students as well as NGO and foreign embassy staff. By means of building on this readership base, Mizzima aims to raise awareness on Burma and also gain solidarity for the Burmese democracy movement.
Distribution of the journal is a complex enterprise, with copies reaching readers in Burma through various means, including: assigned distributors, cross border traffic and human couriers. Maintenance of the network is vital to ensure a continued strengthening of the information flow between inside and outside Burma.
Mizzima’s Monthly Journal is one of the top-most sought after publications among Burmese refugees and migrant workers in India, Thailand, Singapore, Bangladesh, China and all along Burma’s borders. There is an increasing demand for Mizzima Journal copies from the Burmese Diaspora community, especially from Burmese refugees and migrant workers in India, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Inside Burma, Mizzima’s Journal is read by traders, students, activists, youth, government servants, intelligence officers, monks and politicians – testimony to the general dearth of information available across Burmese society.
Never losing sight of long-term goals, in 2008 Mizzima made certain to continue to groom new recruits and better train existing staff in the pursuit of free media and democracy for Burma. Investment into human resources included, but was not limited to: journalism and journal distribution trainings, broadcast journalism training in both Kolkata and Chiang Mai, Internet security training in both Thailand and India, financial management training, a media study tour exploring media centers in Balkan countries and eleven journalism internships for Burmese refugees in Thailand and India,
Additional projects undertaken and areas of focus in 2008 were:
Setting up Mizzima TV studios in India and Thailand and preparing to increase cooperation between the Mizzima TV Unit and DVB (Democratic Voice of Burma) Television.
Campaigning for Burmese journalists, activists and freedom fighters in Indian jails.
Publication and distribution/sale of a special release, Come Rain or Shine (total 1,000 copies), that features a Mizzima correspondent’s firsthand accounts of the Saffron Revolution in September 2007 and Cyclone Nargis/Referendum in May 2008.
Organization of seminars and press conferences in August 2008 in New Delhi, Kolkata and Bangkok, celebrating the 10-year anniversary of the founding of Mizzima News Group.
The dream of Mizzima and Mizzima’s employees goes hand-in-hand with that of modern day Burma. Ten years after its founding, statistics and international recognition bare out the success that Mizzima has had to date in educating and informing Burmese communities, as well as a wider international audience, regarding the continued struggle for freedom of the press, human rights and democracy in Burma.