It is definitely exciting times in Burma now, with censorship dramatically reduced and a major entourage of foreign journalists poised to invade the country this week to cover the visit of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A new media law has been drafted, and information minister Kyaw Hsan is seeking a meeting with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss it.
That is quite a turnabout for the notorious hardliner.
But while Kyaw Hsan stays on as minister for information, the promised new era of press freedom in Burma will remain illusionary, for he is a master of duplicity, hiding behind a bamboo screen of hypocrisy.
Although one of his deputies, Tint Swe, the head of press scrutiny and censorship, has publicly called for an end to press censorship, Kyaw Hsan is obviously reluctant to go that far—and is certainly unwilling to allow many journalists like myself who have been covering the country for decades to be allowed to report on the changes first-hand.
We are, after all, the poisonous “red ants” who might bite Burma’s leaders and report accurately, fairly, and with balance—something that the current information minister will not suffer. In early September, in answer to an MP’s motion demanding press freedom, he replied that granting this would bring more disadvantages than advantages.
He then drew an obtuse analogy with an historic incident, reciting from the Hindi text "550 Jataka Tales" and referring in particular to the fable of the elephant king Saddan.
In this tale, the king offers flowers to his queen, but the flowers attract red ants which bite the queen, Kyaw Hsan told parliamentarians.
Obviously, for Kyaw Hsan, press freedoms are the flowers and the media are the ants, who will cause instability. Throughout Rangoon, there are now white tee-shirts with big red ants on the front—a response to Kyaw Hsan’s inane approach to the press.
But the red ant analogy is a traditional view within the Burmese military, despite the country’s rich indigenous history of professional journalism, insightful essayists, and wonderful writers. When I was allowed into Burma during the time of Khin Nyunt—then the military intelligence chief—his senior officers warned me that their boss did not have a high regard for journalists.
They were mercenaries, he believed, and wrote for the highest price.
Of course, that is true neither for Burmese journalists nor for the international press. There are very high professional standards which govern the conduct of journalists. That is true throughout the world. And among Burma’s neighbors professional ethnics and principles are closely adhered to.
If Kyaw Hsan is really looking for professional advice, he could do no better than consult with the professional journalists he obviously holds in disdain—or with UNESCO which, within the U.N., works on media freedoms, rights, and responsibilities.
While censorship has certainly been considerably relaxed, Kyaw Hsan’s red pen still strikes out articles, headlines, and pictures which don’t suit him. And as always, these deletions are inconsistent and contradictory. Recently an English-language weekly saw their interview with Aung Zaw, the dissident editor of Irrawaddy, axed, despite that fact that a little bit earlier a local Burmese journal had run an interview.
One thing is certain: pictures and interviews with Aung San Suu Kyi are now published almost unscathed, something that certainly was not possible before the elections last year. Editors also tell me that under Thein Sein’s government, things are much more relaxed.
Corruption stories are also beginning to appear in the local independent newspapers and journals—though it is still not possible to name those accused of wrongdoing.
But Kyaw Hsan has also been using his authority to try to undermine the position of the speaker of the lower house, Thura Shwe Mann. Minimal mention of his name, only truncated excerpts from his speeches, and few pictures were allowed in the New Light of Myanmar earlier this year under Kyaw Hsan’s instructions.
Now the position has shifted, with the liberal-minded speaker getting increasing coverage, especially in the local independent press. Last week’s Myanmar Times ran a very sympathetic profile of the Man of the House. “A vital cog in making reform a reality,” said the top subheading, though I understand the censors tinkered even with this story.
As Burma enters a new era of political reform, the role of the press will be vital. A free independent press will be a crucial litmus test of whether these reforms are real. Burma’s ministers and businessmen constantly condemn the international press for presenting a false picture of the country.
But until seasoned journalists like myself are allowed to report from Burma, these moans are really meaningless.
The key responsibility of journalists is to scrutinize developments, hold authority accountable and transparent, and give the marginalized a voice. The role of press is not to praise the government, though it should always give credit where credit is due.
My application for a visa is now sitting in Kyaw Hsan’s in-tray, where it has sat for more than two months. Many diplomats and journalist colleagues say they will believe the Burmese Spring is real only when they get a visa.
The reality is that while Kyaw Hsan wants to talk to Aung San Suu Kyi about a new media law, he doesn’t want some foreign journalists, including myself, to be allowed to visit and report on the reality.
Larry Jagan is a former BBC regional correspondent who is based in Bangkok and has extensively covered Burma issues.