Censorship Easing In Burma

In a reporter's notebook, Tyler Chapman writes that journalists are pleased, but they know that restrictions can be reimposed at any time.
By Tyler Chapman
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7Day_Scan-305.jpg The scanned image of a front page from a Burmese newspaper shows a censor's edits in red.

The editor of True News, one of Rangoon’s weekly newspapers, decided recently to test the limits and patience of the government censorship apparatus.

Thaung Htike has a long record of fighting censorship.  He has been fined and his paper suspended for publishing stories or pictures that censors had not approved.

“I am a journalist,” he told me. “I must dare to tell the truth.”

This time, in a layout of page three he submitted to the censor, there was a small photograph of pro-democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi tucked below the fold.

When the censor approved the photo, Thaung Htike moved it from page three and splashed it across his front page.

“A year ago, they might have thrown me in jail for that,” he told me. “Now, not even a phone call.”

Thaung Htike has taken another risk by talking to a foreign reporter and letting me use his name. A year ago, that, too, could have landed him in jail.

Since April, the government’s notorious “press scrutiny” board has loosened its grip on Burma’s independent weekly newspapers and has stopped censoring specialty journals—sports, finance, health, entertainment—altogether, provided they print no news. (The only daily newspaper is the government’s New Light of Myanmar.)

“I’ve been in journalism 12 years,” an editor at The Voice newsweekly told me, “and I’ve never seen censorship so lax.”

Still, the newsweeklies must submit every story, every photo and even every advertisement to the censor. Editors know the censor will kill stories about anti-government protests, human rights violations, land seizures, political infighting, the war against ethnic armies, and anything else that is perceived to cast the government or army in a bad light.

Yet when five monks in Mandalay recently staged a demonstration for the release of political prisoners, Seven Day News posted the story on its webpage and Facebook page, with pictures, even though it had been censored from the paper. 

“We don’t submit anything to the censor that is going on the web,” an editor at Seven Day News told me. “They don’t seem to have a problem with that.”

Nor does the government have a problem with people viewing the Burmese-language websites of Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, the BBC, Democratic Voice of Burma and all the other once-banned exile news sources. And you can listen to the broadcasts of RFA, BBC, VOA and DVB without fear of arrest now, too.

As for local radio and television, there are no commercial alternatives to the government broadcast outlets.

Covering ‘The Lady’

The evolution of coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi is indicative of how press censorship has changed in the past year.

When she was released from house arrest in November, 2010, the newsweeklies defied censorship and put the historic story and picture on their front pages. Seven of them were suspended for a week, two for two weeks.

Then the government cracked down on Suu Kyi stories, even censoring her quotes, and put limits on the size of her pictures. When she was pictured with government officials, the officials were to be identified first in the caption.

Since April, however, the censors have gone easy, with rare exception. Reporters have beaten a path to Suu Kyi’s door for interviews and pictures. Editors know her picture on page one increases sales. Only the caption rule remains in force.

Moreover, Suu Kyi does a weekly chat with Radio Free Asia and is free to do sit-down or telephone interviews with foreign news organizations.

“Things really changed last spring,” an editor friend said. “We still don’t know why.”

Even stories about local corruption, endemic in Burma, are finding their way into print thanks to the censors’ new leniency—a sign that the government might be serious about cracking down on crooked officials. 

And censors uncharacteristically approved stories about an explosion in Myitkyina, possibly a bomb, that killed 23 people.

Even so, editors are quite aware that the censors can go back to their old heavy-handed ways without so much as a warning.

Enforcing censorship

So how does the censorship process work?

Each newsweekly has its own censor. Sometimes the relationship between editor and censor is contentious, sometimes friendly. One editor I know is Facebook friends with her censor and says he can be flexible in negotiations on a story.

Days before publication, the newsweeklies must submit their feature page proofs to the censor. The pages for news can wait until the day before deadline. Breaking stories can be submitted up to deadline.

Not only can the censor kill a story or picture outright, he can tell an editor to rewrite or delete a sentence or paragraph, to move a story from one page to another, to edit or re-size a picture, or to identify the source of a story. If the editor wants to protect the source, or the source declines to be identified, the story can be killed.

“Some sources who were once afraid to be identified aren’t so hesitant anymore,” an editor told me. “Local officials and police are starting to open up.”

So are officials at the highest level. President Thein Sein and several of his ministers have given press briefings recently, something the previous dictatorial regime of Gen. Than Shwe eschewed. And the chief censor, Tint Swe, has told RFA that censorship should be lifted “in the near future.”

My editor friends point out that the new national constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of the press “under the law.”

The problem is, the law is yet to be written. Until it is, the news community finds itself hoping for the best but wary, with reason.

When reporters and photographers turned up in Pakokku recently to cover the devastating floods there—where at least 200 were left dead and thousands homeless—they were roughed up and chased off. Some had their cameras confiscated and their names taken. 

Fifty years of government paranoia and media repression isn’t going away overnight. 

Tyler Chapman just returned from his sixth trip to Burma in the past five years.


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