When your local paper is in a war-ravaged state in Myanmar, local news isn’t about police beats and sports.
With reporting by Ludivine Paques.
There’s a lot of what you might expect from a small local paper on the pages of the Myitkyina News Journal — university soccer fixtures, outrage over the felling of old trees — and plenty of what you might not, like jade smuggling, civil war and human rights abuses.
For Seng Mai, a co-founder and editor in chief of this Burmese-language weekly in Myanmar’s troubled north, the quotidian stories are just as important as the high-octane ones.
“I’m proud of them all,” she tells Splice as she gestures at a wall covered with the newspaper’s front pages at her office in Myitkyina, Kachin state.
The city of some 300,000 people is the provincial capital of a region in the grip of a decades-old conflict between Myanmar’s military and a powerful rebel army, meaning there is no shortage of stories for the paper’s team of seven reporters to sink their teeth into.
Myitkyina News Journal is harnessing the power of local journalism in a country that until just a few years ago had no independent media. By @JershCarroll and Ludivine Paques.
Creating community change
Seng Mai, who is one of just a handful of female editors-in-chief in Myanmar, has travelled to conflict zones and faced down fears that the paper’s reporting on clashes may get her arrested. But she counts stories that are perhaps less eye-catching as among her team’s proudest achievements.
One is a piece that drew attention to a young boy with a large growth on his head who had travelled for days with his mother from a remote village to seek treatment, only to be turned away by medics. After the article came out, the government-run hospital agreed to operate on him.
Another article embarrassed local authorities into fixing a block of public latrines at a camp on Myitkyina’s outskirts for people displaced by the war. The toilets had been overflowing with human waste and crawling with maggots for months, but until the story came out the municipal office in charge of sewage said it would only empty them if the residents covered the costs, which they couldn’t afford.
Strapped for cash
The paper prints 8,000 copies a week, and sells for 500 kyat ($0.37), but to ensure its coverage is read by the people it affects most, distributors give a small number of free copies to each camp in the Myitkyina area, says CEO and co-founder Brang Mai. And people from the camps work as vendors in exchange for a commission on each copy they sell.
The newspaper, founded in 2014, is harnessing the power of local journalism in a country that until just a few years ago had no independent media.
The former regime seldom handed out publishing licenses and heavily censored any outlets it did not directly control.
But the Journal is not without its critics. Readers from ethnic minority groups have complained that it caters only to those from the state’s majority Kachin ethnic group, says Brang Mai. He accepts that criticism, but says the coverage reflects the dominance of Kachin-led civil society groups in Myitkyina.
And while the editorial team is flexing its muscle, they are a long way from being financially independent. “Advertising is very difficult to get here because we’re a small town,” says Brang Mai. “Whenever we try to contact managers from big banks or telcos here they tell us they don’t have the authority [to place ads], and to contact the marketing departments in Yangon, so that makes it very difficult.”
The paper receives an annual grant of $40,000 from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy, he adds. “Without funding it would be difficult to continue.”
A local first
The co-founders didn’t set out to make money.
“Since my career started,” says Seng Mai, 28, “I dreamt of Myitkyina having its own local journal. For 60 years, my town never had a single news journal.” She began reporting in 2008 as freelancer for the Kachin News Group, an online outlet based in Thailand, and also contributed to the BBC’s Burmese language service.
But while foreign-based outlets were covering the state, she says, Kachin remained “very obscure” even though “it produced most of the mineral resources in Myanmar, it had lots of problems with black money, lots of human rights violations, and it had one of the worst civil conflicts in Myanmar.”
Today, her office walls are covered with front pages that cover all of these issues in detail. “I wanted to publish the very first journal here that stood for the truth,” she says.