In Their Own Words: Burma’s independent Indigenous news

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 The Kachin News Group conducts an interview at the confluence of the Irawaddy River, considered the birthplace of the Kachin, one of Burma's largest Indigenous peoples.Credit: Kachin News Group

“SWRR ministry continues humanitarian support to IDP camps.”“‘Not Enough Water to Wash Our Hands,’ Say Kachin IDPs Bracing For COVID-19.” These starkly different headlines reveal the gulf between state-sponsored media outlets and Burma News International (BNI), an independent news association of Indigenous media outlets that is supported by Inter Pares.

There are significant barriers to freedom of information in Burma. Journalists can be arrested, charged with breaking censorship laws, and even tortured; currently two BNI editors have warrants out for their arrest. A months-long Internet blackout continues in war-ravaged Arakan and Chin States, raising suspicion that the military is covering up evidence of genocide and war crimes. Earlier this year, the government ordered hundreds of news websites, including 3 BNI outlets, blocked on “fake news” charges, and directed telecoms providers to cancel millions of SIM cards at the peak of the coronavirus crisis.

In this difficult context, BNI regroups independent Indigenous news outlets from across the country. Its members produce news in Indigenous languages, by and for Indigenous people, who make up 40% of the country’s population. This news reflects their realities and perspectives on current events, which are sorely underrepresented in government and corporate media. They also publish online in English, making information accessible to non-Indigenous readers.

Some BNI members print local news for Indigenous people in low-connectivity rural areas. Several jointly run Ethnic-Language Television (ELTV), a national TV program that brings Indigenous news, languages and perspectives to homes across the country. In the context of a national assimilation project, ELTV highlights Burma's diversity and, through its very existence, insists Indigenous people be included in Burma’s national conversations.

It is in the freedom of the internet, however, where BNI members can be the most hard-hitting. Free of government oversight and censorship, they expose human rights abuses faced by Indigenous people. In a country where information has long been used as a propaganda tool to stifle dissent, Indigenous media effectively harness the power of information to expose injustice.

BNI members have lost hope that access to information would improve under the current government that replaced the dictatorship. However, BNI members persevere – experimenting with new channels; training journalists, particularly young women; and advocating for press freedom. Most importantly, they keep producing news, upholding their belief that shining a light on injustice is the best way to fight it.

In a country where information has long been used as a propaganda tool to stifle dissent, Indigenous media effectively harness the power of information to expose injustice.

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