An e-mail from Myanmar last week forced me to reread one of the powerful essays by Edward Said, “Reflections on Exile.” Said poignantly describes the state of being in exile: “Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are no more than efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement.”

Myanmarese mediascape

The brief mail from Soe Myint, Editor in-Chief of Mizzima Media, based in Yangon, read: “Dear Panneer, Mizzima has introduced Readers’ Editor for Mizzima Daily newspaper. It would be great if you could support Mizzima with advices and suggestions for the Readers’ Editor.”

It is important to locate Mizzima’s place within the Myanmarese mediascape to understand the significance of this mail.

A decade after the fateful 8-8-88 uprising, three veterans of the Burmese struggle for democracy — Soe Myint, Thin Aung and Win Aung — came together to establish the Mizzima News Agency in New Delhi in August 1998. They chose the name Mizzima, a word derived from the Pali language for middle or moderate, to reflect their journalistic values of being an unbiased independent media. All of them were refugees. With no resources back home they valiantly invested all their private savings to start the venture. When the military junta was blocking all the information from that country, Mizzima and other media outlets in exile provided credible news to the world.

Any media in exile derives its strength from two different moral geographies. Exile provides a legal cover against the totalitarian regime’s information censorship. People who did not relocate despite many hardships constantly provide vital news to the media in exile as they feel that that alone could contribute to international pressure.

Mizzima’s defining moments

The two defining moments of Mizzima’s journalism in exile were its reporting of the 2007 countrywide protests led by monks and the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008. Though the uprising failed to overthrow the military regime or bring about a drastic change to the fractured body polity of Myanmar, it was a success story. Says Soe Myint: “The 2007 protests 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 monks’ protest gained international attention. Mizzima was one of the leading news agencies that brought the stories to the public.”

However, the situation started improving from the end of 2010. It was not a revolutionary change. It was an incremental one. Most of the major pro-democracy players did not want any backlash or slideback to the old draconian days. While the rest of the world did not pin its hope on the November 2010 elections, which the principal opposition party of Aung San Suu Kyi, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted, the locals could sense the winds of change. It led to the creation of a civilian parliament and positive assertion of the new President Thein Sein. Former junta leader Than Shwe was not seen in public forums. President Thein Sein freed Suu Kyi and started a process of democratic reform and reconciliation. In December 2011, President Thein Sein signed a law allowing peaceful demonstrations for the first time and the NLD was re-registered as a political party. In April 2012, NLD candidates swept the board in parliamentary by-elections with Suu Kyi winning by a handsome margin. This was followed by the abolition of prepublication press censorship and removal of more than 2,000 people in exile from the blacklist, thus facilitating their return.

Soe Myint and his friends returned and joined hands with others in working out new media laws and creating a press council for Myanmar. From being a web-based news and analysis portal, Mizzima was transformed into a weekly. In December 2012, the government made a formal announcement that from April 2013, private daily newspapers would be allowed in addition to state-owned publications. On May 24, 2013, Mizzima Daily was rolled out, marking a new beginning in Myanmar’s difficult history.

Setting the bar high

It is heartening to realise that Mizzima has taken the U.K.-based Guardian and The Hindu as its role models. It has a binding editorial code. It has now moved to have an independent Readers’ Editor on the lines of The Guardian and The Hindu. “Good journalistic values do not have borders or nationalities. They are universal. We want to set the bar high right in the beginning as the task of the media in a country like Myanmar which is in a transitional stage is huge and the resources meagre,” said Soe Myint. I hope the Mizzima’s commitment to journalistic values resonates across South Asia.