How Myanmar journalists can help build a federal democracy


Shan Herald Agency for News editor-in-chief Sai Muang. Source: The Irrawaddy

This article was originally published in The Irrawaddy, an independent news website in Myanmar. This edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Since the 2021 coup, the proliferation of “fake news” has become widespread in Myanmar. Independent media groups combat “fake news” through daily broadcasts and by raising community awareness about journalism.

The Shan Herald Agency for News has been covering Shan State for over 33 years, urging the public to speak out against human rights violations and oppression.

The Irrawaddy interviewed Shan Herald Agency Editor-in-chief Sai Muang about independent media's role in helping Myanmar’s transformation into a federal democracy.

He shared that that despite threats from the junta and other armed groups, the Shan Herald remains committed to news gathering.

The Irrawaddy (TI) What difficulties do you face?

Sai Muang (SM): In 2013, former president Thein Sein invited everyone to return because of political reforms [after years of crackdowns on independent media], so we registered the Shan Herald Agency for News in Yangon to establish our office in Taunggyi.

On Shan National Day in February 2021 we were planning to start construction of an office in Taunggyi with the support of the Shan public. But it fell apart because of the coup that month.

We halted our monthly magazine, moved journalists back to the border and could not work freely. Our staff faced accusations under Articles 505 and 66(d), restricting our freedom to work. Even using phrases like the “military council” or “military” is problematic.

We were self-sufficient even without a donor, but now we rely on donors. Some donors are more supportive of the larger media groups, mostly based in the big cities. Support for the state-based media is weak.

There is a misconception that we are just a Shan media group with no national coverage. But we are a national media group based in Shan State.

Traveling and recording and obtaining information have become extremely difficult since the coup. We now have to work without leaving a trace. These are the challenges our reporters face.

Another difficulty is that some sources from the political parties and the authorities want to give us information but they often don’t want to be named, show their faces or use their voices.

The Shan Herald also preserves our traditional literature and culture. If we didn’t publish in the Shan language, there would not be much material for linguistic reference.

We record daily events in the Shan language. We will not stop no matter how difficult it is. We are fully committed to this work. This cannot be stopped. We record the events happening in Shan State and elsewhere in the country in Shan, Burmese and English.

Raising awareness about the value of press freedom is crucial amid the spread of “fake news”. A majority of Shan people are highly supportive and state their opinions honestly without any hidden purpose. But the general Shan public struggles to tell the difference between accurate information and “fake news”.

So our mission includes educating the Shan people about journalism.

Further complicating our work, the nationwide conflict has sparked conflicts not only with the junta but also among other armed groups in Shan State. This internal strife poses extreme challenges to our journalistic work.

If we coexist together like during the federated Shan states in the past, it would be ideal for us to do our job. Currently there is too much opposition.

TI: What motivates you to continue your work?

SM: Enthusiastic young people actively contribute without any payment. We try to keep up with our salaries and expenses. This is a place where those fully committed to our cause come together.

Most of our staff are under 25. Those aged 25 to 50 are in the minority.

The audience is now mainly aged 18 to 34. Our younger audience has grown larger, and this transition necessitates a balanced presentation that caters to both traditional and contemporary preferences.

TI: How do you envision the future?

SM: The Shan public often claims that “politics does not concern us.” But the rising price of gasoline and market goods is related to the current situation. It’s a crucial time to show evidence and educate, especially young people, about this connection.

So, for young people to keep up with the crisis and to spread awareness about the news, we’ve been continuously training citizen journalists more than 10 times since the 2021 coup, involving 10-15 participants per time. Last year a lot more civil disobedience movement students joined our team.

To boost understanding of the news, we focus on training young people for a better future. As a Shan proverb says, “Before a tiger dies, it should produce a replacement.”

If the situation improves, we aspire to establish a Shan media group in Taunggyi that stands together with the Shan people, a media school, research center and study hub for Shan history and general knowledge for those who want to study.

This is why we continue collecting and archiving information for the Shan people. We also hope to fulfill that mission by doing our daily journalistic work.

TI: How can the media help create a federal republic?

SM: Central to this contribution is ensuring public access to accurate information. The pervasive spread of “fake news” undermines trust in news sources and fosters mutual distrust.

The Shan Herald is 33 years old. This has positioned us to believe that media work can play a supportive role in the creation of a federal democracy.

The media has been called the fourth estate. This sentiment resonates with our editor U Sein Kyi, who stated, “If there are more good journalists in our country, democracy will come sooner.”

This belief caught on, and we believe in it. Media work can be a force in combating injustice.

Collaboration between the public and media is essential to unveil and expose oppression and use the media to let the country and the world know what is happening.

TI: How has the Shan Herald adapted to the post-coup security challenges?

SM: We recognize the toll on journalists’ mental health due to exposure to violent news. They see bloodshed and hear violent news daily.

We have a collective, secular 10-minute meditation session before newsroom meetings. This aims to cleanse the minds of the reporters, helping their mental well-being.

Call it meditation or focusing on breathing. We do this daily, aiming to eradicate traumatizing experiences and thoughts. We do this for our mental well-being and invite experts to hold training.

Another approach is to be practical. We have the Shan public supporting us.

We call them citizen journalists. We are drafting a security policy on how to protect them. It’s not finished yet. The current security practice is using common sense. Although a work in progress, this policy aims to be concrete and specific. We are trying to finalize it soon.

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