Newspapers still wary as harsh curbs are eased

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 November, 2011, 12:00am

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For a guide to whether new freedoms are really taking root inside Myanmar, keep an eye on the country's thrusting if embattled press in the months ahead.

Already Myanmar's media has proved a bellwether of change in recent weeks amid the partial lifting of the jackboot of formal censorship before publication.

Aung San Suu-kyi and other opposition figures, long taboo, are now front-page news, along with detailed accounts of overtures from the US and concerns over China's role in the country, particularly the recently suspended Myitsone Dam. News of fighting between government troops and border tribal groups, or the economic situation remains off-limits, however.

One veteran editor, repeatedly jailed in the past for his work, said: 'It's just amazing. We have struggled for so many years, but now we are at the centre of the changes. We are emerging from almost 50 years of military dictatorship, so we are not celebrating just yet. A lot of hard work remains ahead and we are still asking ourselves, can this really be real.'

The editor, still wary of being quoted publicly, is talking in a cramped newsroom in a flat in a Hong Kong-style walk-up in central Yangon as another edition, each one now testing new freedoms, goes to press. The streets around reverberate with the clunking and whirring of old-style printing presses working overtime to churn out newspapers, pamphlets and copies of once-banned books.

Other concrete signs of change are emerging. A new press law is being drafted and editors have been given high-level assurances that they will be consulted before it is put to the next sitting of the nation's fledgling parliament.

While Myanmar possesses a small state media, including the New Light of Myanmar, long infamous around the region for its vituperative attacks and daily warnings to 'crush all imperialist stooges' and other Orwellian slogans, significantly, it boasts a far larger press that is privately owned and operated.

Another senior journalist said that the editors and owners of some 350 private periodicals were recently briefed by government information officials that 150 of them covering fashion, football and popular culture would no longer have to submit material for censorship. The rest, including many weeklies, would be reviewed and others may also soon find themselves completely freed.

Journalists have also negotiated access to parliamentary debates in Naypyidaw, the new capital.

It is not all one-way traffic, however. The minister of information recently told one parliamentary session that proposals for more media freedom would foster 'more disadvantages than advantages'. In a rambling Hindu parable, he compared the press to 'red ants' emerging from a gift of flowers to attack a queen.