As Myanmar loosens media controls, one woman’s image is everywhere, from newspapers to magazines to television programmes: pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or simply “The Lady” as she is known here.
“The Lady is good for business,” said Ko Lynn, a senior editor at a Yangon weekly journal, one of many publications enjoying the slight relaxation in recent months of the government’s strict regulation of the media.
“Before, we ran about 6,000 copies. Now, it’s 10,000.”
Suu Kyi’s decision on Monday to contest upcoming by-elections has raised hopes democracy may take root in one of the world’s most isolated and authoritarian states.
But the fact Myanmar’s media is covering the story at all is a story in itself.
For a half-century, every song, book, cartoon, news story and planned piece of art required approval by teams of censors rooting out political messages and criticisms of Myanmar’s authoritarian system.
Suu Kyi’s name was seldom spoken in public, let alone her image emblazoned across newspaper front pages, since she began opposing Myanmar’s rulers over two decades ago.
The Nobel laureate was freed last November after spending 15 of the last 21 years in detention although until recently newspapers dared not report on her.
But Myanmar, also known as Burma, appears to finally be changing under the most sweeping reforms in the former British colony since a 1962 military coup. Nearly half-century of direct military rule ended in March when a nominally civilian parliament opened seven months after elections.
Although the legislature is stacked with former generals, they can no longer count on the same strictly controlled media that was ranked 174th of 178 nations in a global press freedom index by Reporters Without Borders last year.
Bans on prominent news web sites were lifted in September, including Reuters.com, and some run by critics of the government. And the government is now drafting a new law that officials say would do away with direct political censorship.
Ko Ko Hlaing, chief political adviser to the president, said Myanmar would end political censorship.
“According to our constitution, freedom of expression is guaranteed for every citizen, so our new media law will reflect such a guaranteed freedom of expression, so no censorship,” he told Reuters on Saturday on the sidelines of an international conference in Bali, Indonesia.
“There will be some monitoring systems and also legal process,” he said.
“But censorship will only be cultural and religious. We are very sensitive on maintaining our traditions, cultures and religions,” he added. “Other than that, they can express their opinion very freely.
SHIFT IN ATTITUDE
The shift in attitude flared during an unusually public debate over the government’s plan to build a $3.6 billion, Chinese-funded dam in Myitsone in northern Myanmar.
The project would have flooded an area about the size of Singapore, threatening the Irrawaddy River, the aorta of the country. Ninety percent of its power would have gone to China, and construction jobs would mostly go to Chinese workers.
It struck a raw nerve of nationalism. Popular resentment against the project had seethed since it was agreed in 2006, but until this year, it was relegated to whispers and muffled coffee-shop chatter.
Draconian press rules enforced by the Orwellian-sounding Press Registration and Scrutiny Board rendered the dam, and scores of other juicy subjects including crime and politics, strictly off limits.
But as the national mood changed this year, one of the country’s biggest media executives, Than Htut Aung, took a calculated risk by obliquely criticising the dam in a speech and calling for outside experts to assess river conditions.
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” he told Reuters. “Last year I couldn’t have openly criticised the project. I might have been thrown in prison.”
An opinion piece opposing the dam made it past state censors and into his flagship publication, Eleven Weekly News. The floodgates were open.
Other private news journals and magazines quickly followed, running their own articles critical of the dam and soon, a grassroots social movement to end the project began to snowball into widespread public anger, prompting President Thein Sein to shelve the dam on Sept 30, “according to the desire of the people.”
The changes have gathered steam since early June when the Ministry of Information decided to allow about half of Myanmar’s privately-run weekly journals and monthly magazines to publish without submitting page proofs to a censorship board in advance.
Tint Swe, a senior Ministry official, told reporters the remaining publications would be allowed to be publish without prior censorship “at an appropriate time” and the government would eventually allow private dailies to operate.
Papers have since been testing the boundaries, often putting Suu Kyi on their front pages. Editors say this was unthinkable before the middle of this year.
In one indicator of change, one-time political prisoner and respected senior journalist U Soe Thein won unprecedented government approval in August to organise National Press Awards in Myanmar for the first time.
Working with the government-backed press association, U Soe Thein organised a committee of more than 30 prominent reporters and editors that will select top contributions in five categories next year, awarding a cash prize to each winner.
“The reporting this year has been better than last year,” he said, listing key stories — from the Myitsone Dam, ethnic conflicts, and Suu Kyi’s negotiations with the government.
“I don’t think there will be any backtracking.”
But much has remained unchanged, underscoring the tentative and fragile nature of the reforms so far.
Currently, only the state can publish daily newspapers, which are filled with propaganda. However, they are no longer critical of Suu Kyi and in August dropped back-page banners attacking Western media for “killer broadcasts” and “sowing hatred.”
The reforms have also been slow to trickle down to towns outside Yangon and to rural areas, and journalists say they are still subjected to hassles such as having cameras confiscated.
About 20 journalists are still held in prisons.
In much of the country, heavy censorship remains a fact of life. Publications that must still send their work to a censorship board must do so 10 days in advance of publishing.
On printouts of a recent edition of a top weekly journal seen by a Reuters journalist, large Xs had been made in red marker to indicate stories, phrases and cartoons that did not make the cut.
At another publication, a picture of Suu Kyi was rejected because, juxtaposed against the headline, censors felt it suggested that she represented the political future of Myanmar.
While the Myitsone hydro-dam story emboldened the media, some editors say the censors fear other controversial projects could upset the public. Some probing articles have been rejected, underscoring the limits to the new open-ness.
Although the information ministry has told editors a new press law next year would scrap the registration and scrutiny board, media will still be choosing their words carefully, likely adopting the kind of self-censorship now in place in other parts of Southeast Asia. In Singapore for instance, media is usually careful to avoid displeasing the government and not falling afoul of strict libel laws.
Thiha Saw, editor of Myanma Dana Business magazine, said he still expects the government to retain control over the media.
“There may be private daily newspapers, no pre-press censorship, but they will be watching and they will take action afterwards,” he said.
Than Htut Aung of Eleven Media said Myanmar now had about 20 percent press freedom and he expects that to increase if the government allows private companies like his to open daily newspapers, which is something he has applied for.
“Some hardliners want to change the media to be like China, but that’s rubbish,” he said. “Within one year it will be like in Singapore and there will be self-censorship.”
Still, he admits that anything is possible.
“We’re worried about changes being rolled back. The chances are small, but every journalist must hope for the best.” The Star