In Burma, articles are screened prior to publication and a government body exists to monitor media, but three Burmese journalists expressed cautious optimism Friday at the East-West Center’s International Media Conference in Seoul. They warned, however, that their country has a long way to go to reach full press freedom.
Nyein Nyein Naing, executive editor of the 7 Day News Journal; Myint Kyaw, chief editor of Yangon Press International; and Aung Zaw, editor and publisher of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, discussed the impediments they face as journalists, even amid signs of the Burmese government’s increased openness and lighter censorship.
“Now is the time to start a new era of less censorship,” Kyaw said, adding that no journalists have been arrested since landmark parliamentary elections in April. “We can talk about more now than we could a year ago.”
The panelists discussed how journalists use Facebook to bypass censors, and how citizen journalists are using the social network to publish their reports, though they cautioned that the government is also using social media as a way to monitor the press. Facebook arrived in the country just a few years ago.
Naing said that when she publishes an article that the government censors don’t approve of, she is often required to sign a statement saying she will not do it again. But “I do it again and again every week,” she said as the audience of media professionals erupted in applause.
Zaw said that he is still blacklisted from Burma but was recently permitted to visit for the first time in 24 years. After a series of several trips back to the country, he said, he is cautiously optimistic about the emergence of a free press in Burma.
“I’m very happy to be back in my country,” he said. “I have come to the understanding, though, that I have to shut my mouth if I want to live longer there.”
Recent developments toward signs of democracy in the country have garnered the attention of the international media, most notably the release of 651 political prisoners. One was Nobel Prize winner and member of the National League for Democracy Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for 15 of the past 23 years. This year she was elected to parliament.
These moves are a part of a series of developments that prompted the U.S. to upgrade diplomatic relations with the nation in January. Still, international press freedom organizations and journalists working within Burma are wary whether these steps toward openness will result in long-lasting and substantial press freedoms. After the series of uprisings during the Arab Spring, the revolts made countries with oppressive regimes wary, especially in Burma, Zaw said.
Currently, all Burmese news must still be submitted to government censors prior to publication, and government licenses are required to own a computer. A press council has been formed to replace the censorship board, a government body the panelists agreed should be abolished. But there are worries that the press council could be co-opted by personal interests of powerful members, and will end up impeding unfettered reporting.
Naing said she worries about investors and businessmen controlling content and subverting journalistic ethics for their own profit. Kyaw said that the country’s proposed new media law could be used to bypass due process and enable the government to arrest anyone, including journalists.
Although Burmese journalists have a lot working against them, Zaw noted, journalists in Burma share one strength.
“They need courage,” Zaw said. “Courage is born with you. You need to have the courage inside you to speak up and report what happened.”
— Reporting by David Cawthon, Missouri School of Journalism