Myanmar’s Media in Exile Facing Funding Crunch

Myanmar’s media in exile, long a thorn in the side of the ruling generals, are being squeezed by funding cuts that some blame on a change in policy by Western donors in a shifting political landscape.

Overseas-based media such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are seen as an important source of news in the impoverished nation, where an authoritarian government keeps a stranglehold on domestic reporting.

As a new political system emerges in Myanmar — also known as Burma — with a new parliament, some believe donors have been tempted to divert funding into the country, despite evidence it is still dominated by the military hierarchy.

Within weeks of the first elections in 20 years, DVB — an Oslo-based television, radio and online news provider that is banned in Myanmar — cancelled several programmes after suffering big losses in subsidies.

DVB deputy manager Khin Maung Win said the cuts amounted to about $1 million in 2011, party because the group had received roughly $500,000 in extra funding last year to cover the November election.

He said it would result in job cuts among some of the group’s 150 journalists based in Norway, Thailand or Myanmar.

“As of now, we cannot conclude it is a policy change from the donors’ side… But it has a painful effect on us,” he said.

Another exiled news organisation, Thailand-based Irrawaddy, recently axed its monthly printed magazine to concentrate on its online edition,

The situation “weakens the influence of media that have an extremely positive role,” said Vincent Brossel of media rights group Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Myanmar 174th out of 178 countries for press freedom.

He said the cuts were especially harsh because the organisations had become gradually more independent from opposition groups such as Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Myanmar’s exiled media derives most of its financial support from European governments, mainly Scandinavian, and from public and private donations from the United States.

The DVB did not say which donors were behind the cuts, but it is believed to be mainly European governments.

Mikael Winther, the Danish ambassador to Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, said that his government for its part had not changed its policy toward the junta.

“Denmark is not supporting any government in Burma,” he said. “But since we now have more access inside than we had before, we do support poverty-oriented projects for people suffering inside Burma,” he said.

Some believe that the release of Suu Kyi, who was freed from house arrest just days after Myanmar’s controversial polls in November of last year, has heralded new thinking among many donors.
“Definitely there is concern that there is a major shift in donor policy toward exiled groups including cross-border aid assistance,” said Aung Zaw, founder and director of Irrawaddy.
He said some donors might want to channel money to projects inside the country, or be unhappy with exiled media’s coverage critical of the regime and the election.
Irrawaddy has lost around a third of its annual $1 million in subsidies and has had to cut 20 of its 60 contributors.
Maung Zarni, a Myanmar researcher at the London School of Economics, argued that funding cuts were part of a “deliberate strategy”.
European policy strategists “have concluded that the only way towards change in Burma is through development of free market institutions and pragmatic collaboration with the generals in power”, he said.
Reporters working inside Myanmar for banned exile media organisations risk long jail sentences.
Earlier this month DVB video reporter Maung Maung Zeya, 58, was handed 13 years in prison after being caught filming at the scene of a bomb blast in April 2010.
His son Sithu Zeya has been given an 18-year jail term on similar charges, according to Aung Thein, a legal adviser for political prisoners.
DVB TV is watched almost as much as the state-funded channels in Myanmar, despite a ban on the sale of satellite dishes, according to Reporters Without Borders.
The website is also a respected source of news for those outside the country.
Other established independent media sources covering the country include Radio Free Asia (RFA), financed by the United States, and the BBC’s Burmese service, which recently escaped being axed in severe cuts by the broadcaster.
Many Burmese rely on such radio broadcasts from outside Myanmar to keep up with world news. Suu Kyi herself regularly tuned into the BBC and other broadcasters during her years of detention.
While access to exiled media websites in Myanmar is restricted by the authorities, some people use proxy servers to bypass the blocks.
“We think the more sources for accurate, objective information in Burma, the better and the declining trends are troubling,” said RFA spokesman John Estrella.

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