A theme of World Press Freedom Day, May 3, is Media Freedom Helping to Transform Societies. It’s a theme top of my mind these days. In February I completed work on a documentary, Breaking Open Burma. The film (available here) is meant to capture a moment when press freedom is poised to return to Burma after 50 years. Since the video was released, there have been a few promising developments, and a few worrisome developments. Certainly the story is not finished.
On the promising side, Press Scrutiny Board director Tint Swe indicated in October that his office – a primary source of censorship – would be out of business within months. Then in January 11 prominent imprisoned journalists and media activists were released.
With this hint of change in the wind, UNESCO co-sponsored a media development conference in Rangoon on March 19 and 20. Conference attendees included a few well-known exiled editors and publishers, openly back in the country for the first time in many years. During the conference, Mizzima News – one of the cross-border news agencies featured in my doc – announced it hoped to set up an office inside Burma, their long-term plan from the outset. Mizzima has since gained a printing license.
After covering Burma’s ethnic and pro-democracy organizations for 20 years, I can tell you that long-range thinking and stolid patience is in ample supply. The principle of press freedom has never wavered through decades of censorship. It has been nurtured in jail-cell magazines, smuggled newspapers, private journals, the Internet and even on occasion in the state press, with a few editors willing to test the envelop of censorship.
Whenever there is a crack in the regime – as is happening now – publications spring up overnight, a great joy for news-hungry readers. Today there are more magazines and newspapers than have been seen in many years.
But on the worrisome side, the Press Scrutiny Board still remains in place, some restrictions have in fact been tightened, and daily harassment of journalists and publishers continues. Although hailed as a break-through moment, the Culture Minister’s speech to the March conference included some highly qualified words: “Our aim is to facilitate the correct use of press freedom for long-term progress of Myanmar media world without damaging the interest of human society.”
Who will determine “correct” freedom and who will define “the interest of human society” remains to be seen.
Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s election to parliament has not magically settled that question in the past 30 days, nor will it in the next 30 days. Her public statements on press freedom have been cautionary. I was interviewed by a few U.S.-based media outlets right after the election, and it seemed the interviewers were pushing other panelists and myself to declare a happy conclusion to a fairy tale – and that Burma is now open for business without any bothersome doubts about the human rights situation.
I worry that foreign investors will ride the crest of a media-empowered narrative that Burma’s factory and oil and gas workers now enjoy normal human rights and political freedom. In reality, these rights remain a work in progress. Democracy is not a fairy tale.
There’s a hard road ahead for Burma’s journalists and political activists, one that requires continued critical international scrutiny. To date, media freedom is still limited. The impressive perseverance and patience of Burma’s journalism corps will doubtless continue to be tested. In the words of a joint statement by exiled media agencies, “There are still too many swords of Damocles to be free.”
Still, I have never yet met a journalist from Burma who doubts press freedom will prevail in the end. All I’ve talked to implicitly understand – and wonderfully articulate – how the humble work of a daily reporter is tied to wider societal transformations. Listening to them has been a great lesson in what it’s all about.
Patricia Elliott is a freelancer who has covered Burma on and off since 1989, and is currently an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, University of Regina.