Column
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 1:15pm

Two cheers for end to media censorship in Myanmar

Greg Torode says while the formal end of media censorship in Myanmar is positive, the real limits of free speech have yet to be tested

BIO

Chief Asia correspondent Greg Torode is one of the most experienced reporters in the region. In his 20 years at the SCMP, Torode has spent 15 years as a correspondent, travelling extensively to report political, strategic and security developments. The way the region is adapting to China’s rise has formed a key part of his work. His exclusive stories and analyses are widely followed by regional and international media.
 

It is difficult to overestimate just how far Myanmar's press has come from its darkest days under military censorship.

A little over two years ago, I witnessed one editor in Myanmar beam with pleasure as his weekly appeared with his latest subterfuge intact after passing under the noses of official censors: It was the inclusion of the word "gerrymander" in a word puzzle that appeared on the same page as news about recent electoral changes. Hardly groundbreaking reportage, but he considered it no small triumph against one of the harshest censorship regimes anywhere.

Recent months, of course, have seen a flurry of changes - a symbol of the wider political, economic and social changes under way in Myanmar. First, the fashion, entertainment and sports magazines were told they no longer had to submit to pre-publication censorship from a government board.

Then, last week, the growing number of political and religious publications were formally told the same thing by the government's once-feared Press Scrutiny and Registration Department - an expected move after a marked loosening of the reins on coverage given to opposition activities, released political prisoners and Myanmar's regional affairs. It marked a formal end to 48 years of official control.

Myanmese journalists warn that their struggles are far from over, however. Given their long years of oppression - which have meant jail for some - they worry about testing their new freedoms and precisely when and where the axe will fall in future.

"It's good, yes, but a prudent self-censorship is still the order of the day, I'm afraid," one veteran reporter said. "People might be hailing this outside the country, but inside we're still worried about traps and minefields." Corruption and the lingering influence of leading military families are areas making many nervous.

Others point to the fact that the department still exists and is keeping a close watch on publications once they hit the streets. They are also waiting to be consulted on a new media law, something expected to outline press ethics and responsibilities.

The wider issue has reverberations beyond Myanmar. Journalists operating under a variety of regimes in East Asia are scrutinising developments, and, if they continue, will start asking the logical question: if Myanmar can do it, why can't we?

Then there is the fact that Myanmar's press can be seen as a barometer of the wider reform story. With Myanmar lacking the systemic control of a communist-party-ruled state, change could come surprisingly swiftly there - and its media is a reflection of that.

The bulk of its publications have long been privately owned. And like the jackboot until recently holding down the wider society, the censorship was top-down from the censor board, rather than bottom- up from cadres and party flacks.

The nagging questions, then, are whether, and to what extent, changes will take root and bed down or, along with wider reforms, be vulnerable to constantly shifting political winds? After last week's news, it seems a case of two cheers for Myanmar.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent. greg.torode@scmp.com

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