from the readers’ editor Columns

A fragile ecosystem

Information in the public sphere often travels in two contradictory and contending trajectories. One is aimed at empowering citizens and helping them in sharpening their spirit of critical inquiry. The other is to serve the whims of the government, where the role of the information ecosystem is reduced to that of a mere amplifier of the claims of those in power. Journalism, in its desire to remain the node of empowerment, has to constantly remind itself and the citizens of the troubled past and the fragile present. But the battle to erase hard-won victories seems to be a new normal today.

Often, there were questions about the nature of this column itself. As I am the lone news ombudsman in a mainstream media outlet in India, with no peer comparison, each reader tends to read the terms of reference spelt out for the Readers’ Editor (RE) from different perspectives. Some expect the RE to look at complaints from readers alone. Some feel that the RE should expand his remit to include comments on the business side of the news such as advertisement, subscription and circulation. And a vast majority of readers are very appreciative of the media literacy component in the columns.

There are many reasons for drawing the attention of the readers to factors that govern our news ecology. From financial sustainability to an enabling legal and regulatory framework, a news organisation must be firmly wedded to the vibrancy of our democratic institutions. As a journalist and a media development professional, I worked closely with a team of journalists from Myanmar in creating a new, democratic and legal framework in the wake of the success of the pro-democracy movement in the country. There was international support for creating institutions that would ensure media freedom and accountability.

In my column, ‘From exile to excellence’ (June 9, 2014), I recorded with a sense of pride the creation of the first news ombudsman in Myanmar by Mizzima Media. I reproduced the letter from Soe Myint, editor-in-chief of Mizzima Media, based in Yangon, that 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.”

Everyone who is invested in democratic values should know the story of Mizzima. A decade after the 1988 uprising, three veterans of the Burmese struggle for democracy — Soe Myint, Thin Thin Aung and Win Aung — came together to establish the Mizzima News Agency in New Delhi in August 1998. As I have mentioned elsewhere, the editorial team chose the name ‘Mizzima’, a word derived from the Pali language meaning ‘middle’ or ‘moderate’, to reflect their journalistic values of being an unbiased and independent media outlet. 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.

A formidable challenge

Their journalistic journey was an uphill task. As a media organisation in exile, they knew about the dangers faced by those who contributed for them from back home. The desire to inform amidst a crackdown, where the information channel was under the close scrutiny of the military junta, helped them trump many an impediment to emerge as the voice of the people of Myanmar. Mizzima’s exhaustive coverage of the protest by Buddhist monks in 2007 and its untiring documentation of the wreckage caused by Cyclone Nargis in 2008 played a significant role in attracting the attention of the international community to the blight that had hit the country that lay sandwiched between India and China.

All this eventually led to a phased democratic transition. Inspired by the opening up of the democratic space, the editorial team decided to shift their base from India to Myanmar in 2012. But in less than a decade, their hopes have been dashed.

On February 1 this year, Myanmar’s military seized power after detaining Aung San Suu Kyi and other democratically elected leaders. The military has already ordered the closure of many independent media outlets. Nandita Haksar, a keen observer of Myanmar’s politics, has revealed that her friend Thin Thin Aung, the co-founder of the Mizzima news group, was arrested on April 8.

readerseditor@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | May 13, 2021 5:33:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/a-fragile-ecosystem/article34297611.ece

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