Dr Than Htut Aung and his editorial staff have campaigned enthusiastically, with candour and boldness, for transparency and government accountability against the repressive political atmosphere since the media group was founded 13 years ago.
While he may describe Myanmar's moves towards democracy in the past two years as "amazing", Dr Aung warns that the process is now under threat. "If Myanmar goes backwards, it will be due to corruption," he has said, reflecting a sense of uncertainty about the road to full democracy.
As a student of medicine, Than Htut Aung won a place at a university in England in 1988, but the military junta refused to issue him a passport. He spent a number of years in business before an opportunity to hire a publishing license led to the creation of the First Eleven Sports Journal.
The newspaper began with a staff of just three and an initial print run of 5,000 copies. As a weekly journal, it captured readers' imaginations in a repressive, autocratic environment, with Dr Than and his writers cleverly crafting political messages into their football articles. "Man in the middle - the referee is 'not fair'" was one headline. "Football is played not just among the 22 but all the audience” another, both analogies for parliamentary politics.
Readers young and old came to love this political overtone. Not unexpectedly, in 2003, Eleven Media’s offices were raided by military intelligence officers after the title ran a series of articles on a civilian massacre. Dr Than was briefly arrested. Also in 2003, one of its editors was sentenced to death over a story alleging misuse of an international grant. The sentence was later commuted to three years in prison.
Media censorship in the following year was intense. Eleven was portrayed as the "symbol of protest”. It soon boasted a staff of 50 and distribution grew to 12,000 copies. The reading public became more visibly interested in politically inspired football articles. Still unable to get a license to publish a daily, Dr Than launched its flagship news-weekly in 2005.
Official censorship prevailed with sports articles taking one to two days for approval, three to five days for other types of articles. "We had to be clever and careful," Dr Than has said. "There are some good guys in the military intelligence service...some military intelligence officers are very intelligent."
After 2005, the censorship situation improved somewhat with the responsibility transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Information Ministry. By that time, Eleven Media was publishing four days a week, four different titles (as private dailies were banned).
Following the election in 2010 after which a new government was installed under President General Thein Sein, Dr Than took on the task of convincing the government to pursue a dialogue with the Opposition, including Aung San Suu Kyi, and to reach out to the international community.
In November 2010, the paper was banned from publishing for two weeks because of this sneaky sports headline that heralded Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest: the words "Su free, unite and advance to grab the hope" are hidden in a sports headline.
At Eleven Media Group’s 11th anniversary celebration in June 2011, Htut Aung tested the newfound freedom of Myanmar’s press by openly opposing the controversial Myitsone Dam project for being an environmentally disastrous undertaking by a government that assumed little accountability. He criticised the government, saying it wasn't showing any serious consideration for the livelihood and welfare of the people, and questioned the country’s heavy dependence on China, noting that it posed an imminent threat because a weak Myanmar could not resist dominance by its giant neighbour.
The Myanmar government responded to the public's growing restlessness over the project. It took the unprecedented step of announcing a temporary suspension of dam construction. Eleven Media journalists undertook a further investigation and reported that construction was still on-going in early 2012, despite the "stop" order. The exposé pressured the government to declare a permanent suspension.
In November 2011, at a reception to mark 11.11.11, Than Htut Aung took the bold steps of reserving seats for the imprisoned 88 Generation students group leaders and asking the government to free them all.
Today, as a market leader in Myanmar, Eleven employs 140 reporters and has a staff of over 450. It began publishing daily on 3 May 2013, appropriately, World Press Freedom Day, and also operates SMS mobile services and an English website.
Visit elevenmyanmar.com for more of the Eleven story.