When discussing censorship in Myanmar, observers invariably focus on the domestic press. Depending on who you speak to, these publications are usually either a mouthpiece for the government or valiantly working in the small space afforded them by a draconian censorship board. The reality is, of course, probably somewhere in between.
Yet censorship in Myanmar is more pervasive than that. Much of the news from the country appears via wire agencies such as Agence France Presse, Reuters and Associated Press, which all have stringers in the country. A number of Japanese and Chinese publications also have registered stringers, nearly all of whom are Myanmar nationals.
This is a fraught job. The journalists need approval from the government to work in these positions, and are issued with permits that must be renewed each year. A seemingly minor infraction can result in a serious problem. A few years ago one correspondent was summoned to Naypyidaw because an article with his byline had referred to Myanmar’s new capital as a “ghost town”, and someone in the government did not like the connotation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, those two words had been added to his piece by a subeditor based outside the country.
The stringers I’ve met are brave individuals, who walk a fine line between the demands of their editors and a vindictive Ministry of Information. A recent press conference in Naypyidaw provides an illustrative example. At the briefing, the Minister for Information, U Kyaw Hsan, broke down in tears. It was an event so absurd and unthinkable that I’m sure many would have deemed it worth reporting on, certainly in the context of the recent political changes and struggles in the country. However, the press was uniformly silent: To my knowledge, not a single mainstream media outlet reported on the incident. Shortly after regaining his composure, the minister apparently made it clear the lapse would not be publicised.
Another form of censorship of Myanmar-related articles occurs outside the country, in which certain developments are not reported because they do not fit with the either the ideology of the editor, or what the editor believes readers want. The decision by some journalists to for the most part ignore the November 2010 election was but one example.
Thankfully, the internet has given observers of Myanmar many more options than they once enjoyed, even as a few outlets, such as the Far Eastern Economic Review, have ceased to exist. Social media like Facebook has also become increasingly effective in sharing news, particularly in Burmese language. Photos and reports of events often appear on the social networking site — which is immensely popular in Yangon — before anywhere else.
Recently, I came across an interesting piece of information on Facebook. A “friend” had posted that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had pressed charges against her brother, a publisher and editor over an article related to a long-running legal dispute over ownership of the family home on University Avenue.
Her brother, U Aung San Oo, had been quoted in an article in local journal Monitor as saying that the court had already found the case in his favour. As the case had still not been officially resolved, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s lawyers complained the three had breached the Contempt of Courts Act.
After making a few enquiries, I found the Facebook report was true: she had filed charges on August 8 and the Yangon High Court had accepted her complaint. The editor of Monitor, U Myat Khaing, even published a rebuttal in his other publication a few days later, arguing (none-too-convincingly) that the comments just represented U Aung San Oo’s views and not those of the publication.
Yet I have seen not a mention of the case anywhere in the media, except in Democratic Voice of Burma and as an aside at the end of a report in Mizzima that said a verdict in the original legal dispute was expected soon.
I am perplexed as to why this would not be deemed newsworthy, particularly given the international media’s near-obsession with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. In recent years we’ve been treated to articles about her planning to establish a Twitter account, renovating her home and even being given a dog as a birthday gift by her son, Kim Aris. Has a conscious decision been made to ignore this case because it would not look good if Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was seen as trying to suppress the media? I have no idea. Certainly it appears she was within her rights to press charges, and it should be noted that U Myat Khaing has a less than favourable reputation in the industry. Perhaps some New Mandala readers will be able to fill the gaps.
Coincidentally, the Contempt of Court Act was discussed last week in Myanmar’s new parliament — another non-newsworthy event outside Myanmar. On August 25, U Thein Nyunt — a lawyer and former National League for Democracy member, no less — submitted a proposal to the lower house that the law, enacted in 1926, be revoked. The proposal was quickly voted down in the Pyithu Hluttaw at the behest of Attorney General Dr Tun Shin: ensuring Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the three defendants can have their day in court.