A BBC bureau for Burma

 

This weekend I received news I never thought I'd hear. The Myanmar Ministry of Information announced that the BBC, along with three other international news agencies, had been given official permission to open a news bureau in Burma, also known as Myanmar.

It is hard to overstate the significance of this news, nor the astonishing pace of change in a country which has long been a byword for media repression and censorship.

For decades the BBC was banned from reporting from Burma/Myanmar - although it remained one of the key sources of information for Burmese-speaking audiences, both inside and outside the country.

But within the past few years, the country has been moving towards media freedom. Almost exactly a year ago I announced BBC World News would be broadcast in Burma. This in itself was an extraordinary step in a country whose state broadcaster was literally the mouthpiece of government - reading word-for-word the news delivered to them by the state news agency.

That same deal also saw BBC entertainment channels BBC Entertainment and CBeebies available on pay-TV.

Since then the milestones have come thick and fast. Earlier this year, the BBC launched audio bulletins on mobile phones in Burma, the first international news organisation to do so. We are the only international broadcaster providing SMS news and sport bulletins inside Burma. And BBC Burmese radio programmes are now being rebroadcast on FM in Burma.

BBC Burmese, a service which has been available since 1940, now has an estimated audience of 8.4 million, nearly a quarter of the population. Independent studies show the BBC has established itself as the most trusted broadcaster in Burma.

The Burmese government has taken note of the BBC. Announcing this weekend's decision, Deputy Minister of Information U Ye Htut acknowledged the BBC as a "model" for its standard of journalism, saying this has made the BBC a priority for bureau opening.

The BBC's charity Media Action has been working to train the next generation of Burmese journalists, including those at the state-run broadcaster, offering not only technical training, but, crucially, editorial training in the BBC values of independent reporting.

For one thing which has not, and will not, change, is the BBC's commitment to impartial, balanced journalism. We will report the changing face of Burma without fear or favour, and we have made this clear to the Burmese government.

We aim to open our bureau next year. The bureau will be staffed by both English-language and BBC Burmese Service journalists - reflecting the growing trend for the BBC's bilingual World Service journalists to work more closely with their colleagues in domestic news, bringing their expertise and insights to our domestic services.

There are many BBC bureaux across the world. But few as hard fought-for as this one.

 

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