The Myanmar government’s attempts to restrict reporting, by both local and international media, have shown no signs of abating in the lead-up to the 2010 election.

Last month, it continued with the arrest of more journalists. It seems the arrests were not directly related to their line of work — they were members of a civil society group that allegedly received funds from abroad — but being a reporter or editor in Myanmar certainly puts one’s head above the parapet.

While several journalists were among 7114 prisoners released in a recent amnesty, it is thought many more are still behind bars. This fact, combined with the strict censorship regime the government has put in place to oversee local media, contributed to Myanmar placing fifth-last in a recent Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, above only Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

For foreign-based media groups, reporting from Myanmar is “at the best of times very difficult, at the worst impossible”, the BBC’s Burma desk editor, Soe Win Than, said at a debate on Myanmar’s future conducted at the launch of the 2010 Orwell Prize on October 29.

Repression of media has created an “atmosphere of fear” that makes it difficult for journalists to talk to people “even over non-controversial subjects”, he said.

While all this is true, it is incorrect to automatically dismiss local private media as being without value. I think many outsiders would be surprised at both the number and variety of journals available locally. At the end of 2008 there were almost 200 licensed journals, which generally publish weekly or fortnightly, and another 200 or so magazines that publish monthly. The number of these regularly publishing, however, would be somewhere between a quarter and one half of those figures.

Local publications cover a wide range of topics, from general news, foreign affairs and business to sport, fashion and celebrities.

Thant Myint-U made a similar point recently at a US committee hearing when he said Myanmar has an “increasingly vibrant civil society” and “heavily-censored but largely privately-owned media”. These are both symptoms of the Myanmar people’s “obvious desire for greater freedom and government accountability”, he concluded.

Naturally, local journals are going to struggle to hold the military government to account with the present censorship system. However, there seems to be an ever-widening scope for debate, at least on certain issues. This has prompted some publications, including the The Voice Weekly, to begin running editorials — as far as I know, this is the first time this has been seriously attempted.

This drew the ire of The Irrawaddy, which said anti-government groups in the country were “enraged” by journals commenting favourably on the 2010 general election and the visit of US senator Jim Webb.

“In military-ruled Burma it is common that editors and publishers, if they are not outright apologists of the regime, compromise and toe the official line so their publications can survive,” The Irrawaddy’s chief, Aung Zaw, wrote in an editorial, pointing out that despite an apparent relaxation of censorship recently, few journals or editors “dared to question the election and publish critical analysis of the political process” in Myanmar.

But there is more to the local press than meets the eye. Aware of the limits of operating in a censored media environment, journals are clever enough to see the futility of outright criticism of the government, something best left to those outside the country. Publishers that disobey censorship pretty quickly have their journal shut down. Most are required to print a one-page government editorial in each edition but, outside that, it’s unusual to hear of journals being forced to publish propaganda.

More often, the censors compromise rather than demand. For example, journals were told last week they could only publish photos of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi if they also printed a Myanmar News Agency photo of Kurt Campbell shaking hands with Prime Minister Thein Sein.

There are opportunities to publish sensitive material. Corruption permeates everyday life here in Myanmar, and the censorship board is no exception. As a general rule, the more you give, the more you get. While this is ethically debatable, the same could be said of foreign-based media who, almost as a matter of course, refuse to name sources or (for obvious reasons) identify reporters operating in the country.

In short, what is accepted elsewhere does not necessarily apply in a place like Myanmar. While censorship is a major handicap that would not normally be tolerated, it has to be weighed up against the alternative — in this case, subjecting Myanmar readers to a media diet of only New Light of Myanmar, Kyemon and Myanma Ahlin (something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy).

And, occasionally, you see something really surprising, like this expansive interview with the US charge d’affaires to Myanmar, Mr Larry Dinger. Most likely it was permitted to send a statement to visiting US envoys last week, and was widely quoted in international media.

There is another aspect of the local media industry that many critics ignore and should be taken into account. I would say, at a conservative estimate, local journals and magazines directly employ in excess of 10,000 people. The same number again would be employed indirectly in the printing, advertising and marketing aspects of the business. Many reporters have the opportunity to attend training courses abroad, and through the cultural arms of the US and British embassies in Yangon.

“I call that capacity building, and there are a large group of publishers, editors and journalists in Myanmar who have similar views to myself. We see light at the end of the tunnel,” the controversial publisher of The Myanmar Times, Ross Dunkley, said in a recent profile published in the Bangkok Post.

The media sector is also one of the few growth industries in Myanmar. One local market research company estimated about US$17 million was spent on advertising nationally in 2006. Given the significant increase in new journals since then, advertising could perhaps be double that figure now and it is not unusual for large privately owned companies to have marketing and advertising budgets of several million US dollars.

However, one recent government decision could hurt the industry more than the much-publicised censorship regime.

From January 1, 2010 all alcohol and cigarette advertising will be banned from local media. For several months, the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny division has been refusing to approve new alcohol advertisements, only allowing those that were approved for the ban was announced.

In spite of the fact sports journals will be most affected, this decision — ostensibly made for health reasons — appears to be politically motivated, designed to put the squeeze (economically) on journals ahead of next year’s proposed general election.

Many of the well-known news journals are published by media companies that also have profitable sports journals in their stable. The announcement came not from the Ministry of Health or Ministry of Information but from the Ministry of Defense.

Those in the industry will be watching to see how strictly this ban is enforced. Ironically, a well-directed bottle of Black Label could just be enough to get that lucrative whiskey advertisement published.