Myanmar’s journalists will take to Twitter and Facebook in their battle to beat press restrictions and deliver breaking news of today’s by-elections that for many will be the biggest story of their careers. The vote — the first contested by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and likely to propel her into parliament — is set to pose a host of challenges for news editors from the country’s long-censored media. All private news publications are weekly, after the previous military rulers nationalized dailies half a century ago and “everybody wants to be a Monday paper this week,” said Thiha Saw, editor of Open News, one of a number of papers to have applied for permission to print a day after the by-elections.
Those newspapers not shifting their print runs will rely on their burgeoning social media pages to provide readers with up to date coverage. “Our paper will be [published] after the election, so we will post on Facebook and our Twitter account, so we will update all the news every hour after the polling stations open,” said Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of 7Day News, one of the country’s biggest weeklies with an estimated readership of 1.5 million. Until last year, prominent coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi — known in Myanmar as “The Lady” — was almost unheard of and people who spoke to reporters were taking a real risk.
Front page pictures of the Nobel prize-winning opposition leader are now commonplace, while coverage of some other previously taboo subjects is also allowed after a new regime loosened censorship as part of wide-ranging reforms that have taken observers by surprise. Weeklies are still subject to pre-publication scrutiny that is described by media rights organizations as among the world’s most draconian, but Nyein Nyein Naing said newspapers were increasingly deciding not to send sensitive stories to the censors. “We are just trying to push our boundaries a little bit. We do something one week and nothing happens, so we do more the next week,” she said, indicating the latest edition of the paper, which carried a front page story about the controversial decision by authorities to postpone voting in three constituencies in Kachin State due to ongoing ethnic unrest in the northern region.
She said when it comes to breaking news online, editors publish what they want. “For the Facebook and Twitter, we don’t think about censorship at all, we just put everything that we have got.” She said 7Day News had become increasingly reliant on Facebook to reach its readership. A story posted on the 7Day page of the social media Web site about electricity blackouts, an increasing problem during the summer months, had more than a hundred comments and 165 shares in just two hours — no mean feat in a country where only a fraction of the population has access to the Internet.
However, while censors might not stop papers covering the election in real time — the Internet itself could pose a challenge in a country beset by outages during sensitive periods. “We all are worried about the Internet connection. Not only me but other journalists who are running their stories through the Internet,” said Nyein Nyein Naing. She added that her reporter could not send pictures during a recent Aung San Suu Kyi trip to the far north because the connection was down. “I don’t think that would be coincidentally,” she said when asked if the authorities were behind the outage.