By Tessa Piper, Program Director for Southeast Asia.
During almost seven years of managing MDIF’s business coaching programme for independent media in Myanmar, I have frequently heard examples of unusual levels of dedication that journalists have shown in carrying out their work. Last week was the latest, when a husband-and-wife journalist couple explained on a call with their coach for our programme that they had sold their wedding rings to raise money to re-establish their media outlet after being forced to flee their home to avoid arrest simply for doing their jobs.
This is a small example of the kind of sacrifices that people from all walks of life have been making every day in Myanmar since the 1 February 2021 military coup. Others have sacrificed far more: as of 29 September, 1,146 civilians have been killed, more than 6,900 are currently detained, ill-treatment and torture in custody is rife, and the military are committing more atrocities every day. Amid this, COVID-19 has continued to take a devastating toll.
The sale of this couple’s wedding rings is symbolic of the commitment and bravery that so many journalists from all over Myanmar have shown since the coup. They have done so to ensure that the truth about the tragic reality of the situation in the country continues to be revealed despite the significant risks they face in doing so.
Like all other sectors of society since the coup, the media has taken a battering. Indeed, independent media have been singled out by the military junta for attack. No independent media, whether national or local, can operate openly. Their offices are all shuttered, and 11 media houses have been charged with criminal offences, had their licences revoked, or both. Journalists, forced into hiding, live in fear of arrest, torture or even death. More than 100 media workers have been detained since the coup, and almost half of them remain in detention in terrible conditions, a dozen of them women.
Remarkably, most of the country’s independent media nevertheless have continued to operate, determined to ensure that their audiences have access to reliable news and information at a time when this is more vital than ever. And the value of their work is being increasingly recognised by these audiences, whose numbers have grown since the coup as more and more people appreciate the importance of being able to access trusted information sources at a time when misinformation and disinformation abounds.
When the coup was launched, MDIF had been running a business capacity building programme for independent media in Myanmar for nearly seven years. We started it in the wake of the major changes that had occurred in the media landscape after five decades of tight restrictions on the media. While the political opening that had presaged this presented exciting new opportunities for independent outlets, they soon discovered that they were operating in a very challenging business environment. At that time, we did not see any immediate possibilities to support media in Myanmar with loan or equity financing. However, without assistance to build their business capacity, we assessed that there was a strong chance that most of the nascent independent media in the country would struggle to survive over the long term.
We therefore designed and began to implement our Myanmar Media Program (MMP), a unique multi-year initiative to provide intensive business coaching and other forms of capacity building tailormade to the needs of each media partner. By the end of 2019, when we completed the first phase of our programme, partners had made impressive progress that far exceeded the KPIs set, achieving average annual revenue growth of 77% and average annual audience growth of 33%.
By the time Covid-19 hit the region in early 2020, MDIF was one year into the second phase of our Myanmar programme through which we were working with three dozen independent national and local media all over the country. One of the most rewarding impacts that we were then seeing was a growing recognition among our partners of the value of achieving financial self-reliance and of the possible ways in which they could do so. In the past, the common assumption among many Myanmar media had been that donor reliance was a necessity. Alongside this awareness of the potential for financial independence was an increasing interest in building the non-editorial capacity of their operations.
The solid relationships that the MDIF team, including our business coaches, had already built with our media partners made it much easier than we had originally anticipated to switch over to virtual engagement when the pandemic obliged us to do so. As a result, with some adjustments to the programme, we were able to largely continue our work without any major negative impact.
When the coup took place, and despite the dangerous conditions in which they were operating, the trust established with our media partners proved critical to our ability to first maintain contact, and then continue our work, with them. Thanks to this and the understanding we have built up of their capacity and needs, MDIF has been able to adjust our activities to fit the radically changed environment and continue to provide relevant and meaningful support to our media partners.
One of the ways in which we have done so is to continue a programme that MDIF designed following the outbreak of Covid-19 to disseminate much-needed information about the pandemic to people living all over the country.
This Public Service Announcement (PSA) initiative has proven remarkably effective: over the past 14 months, we have sponsored the production and dissemination of more than 100 PSAs that have been published in a variety of formats a total of 1,700 times. They have reached audiences in 14 ethnic states and regions in Myanmar via four national and 28 local media outlets. As a result, 26 million people have had access to reliable information about the pandemic that would otherwise have been unavailable to them and are consequently better equipped to protect themselves from Covid-19.
As well as educating the public about the virus, our PSA initiative was designed with two other benefits in mind. First, we used it as a sales training exercise for our media partners. We invited them to submit proposals, as if to an advertiser or advertising agency, outlining what PSAs they would produce, how often and on what platforms, and the estimated audience reach, as well as setting a price for this service. These proposals were subject to negotiation, as they would be with an advertiser, and payment was contingent upon full implementation of the commitments made. Once implemented, this initiative helped to fill the major gap that had occurred in the media’s revenues due to the dramatic drop in advertising caused by the pandemic, which then plummeted to zero following the coup.
An additional benefit of our PSA program is that it offers a rare opportunity for the media to earn money to cover their operational costs. Most of them have lost all other sources of income because of the coup and are struggling to survive financially. This programme has therefore offered a financial lifeline to our Myanmar media partners to enable them to continue their vital work.
When we developed our programme in Myanmar, two of the features we built into the design were flexibility and creativity. This enabled us to adjust and adapt it to fit the specific needs of each media and to think creatively about the most effective ways to achieve our goal of increasing the capacity of our partners to survive. Covid-19 and, more recently, the military coup, have added a new and urgent imperative to the need for media survival. More than ever, our partners need support to continue to produce content that informs and educates their audiences. The nature of the support for independent media in Myanmar and how it is conveyed may change, but MDIF’s commitment to providing it remains, and we hope to be able to continue to do so for as long as it is needed, and especially during this particularly difficult time.
There are, of course, many more important things, but we also hope that by doing so we can prevent the need for any more journalists to sell their wedding rings.
This article is part of our series, ‘25 things we’ve learned’, marking MDIF’s 25th anniversary.