Ko Ko Gyi unrolls a copy of the Messenger, one of 30 privately owned news magazines in Myanmar (Burma), and points — with an expression of disbelief — to a prominent picture of himself on the front page.
“I never imagined a Burmese paper could have a cover story with a full-page photo of me,” he says, holding up the magazine during an interview at one of Yangon‘s many tea shops.
Mr. Ko Ko Gyi was one of some 300 political prisoners released in a Jan. 13 amnesty by the government. The article goes into the details of what it was like for him to spend 18 years in jail after taking part in pro-democracy protests in Yangon in 1988.
“It is not so long since such coverage would not have been possible here,” says U Myint Kyaw, editor of Yangon Press International, an online-only news start-up in the country’s main city.
Since 1962, Myanmar’s dictatorship has jailed the opposition, beat up monks, denied aid to disaster victims, and run scorched-earth campaigns against ethnic minorities. For the past four years, it has been ranked among the world’s five worst jailers of the press. But in an about-face, Myanmar’s military-backed civilian government is taking some major steps toward democratization, including promising free and fair elections, calling for peace in the restive ethnic areas, and releasing hundreds of political prisoners. Now, the leashed media is starting to see the beginning of some loosening.
Despite the new freedoms — and a promise to replace the old law of “pre-censorship” with a new system under which publications will be “reviewed” after they hit the newsstands — the country’s censors, known officially as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), still require all publications to submit political news content to them for vetting prior to publication.
At the Myanmar Times, the sole foreign-backed publication, an editor who asked not to be named, as reforms in Myanmar are still at the early stages, displayed a draft of the latest weekly edition, returned by the PSRD with red ink circling sections that could not be published.
A sentence that the PSRD ordered cut, which was from a Reuters wire story about Myanmar’s new parliament, read, “derided as a well-choreographed sham in one of the world’s most authoritarian countries when it opened a year ago.”
To be sure, the editor says, “writing about corruption is difficult, as is writing anything criticizing the Constitution.”
However, articles that would have been unthinkable a year ago, he explains, are making it past the censors, including pieces looking at the international reaction to reforms and detailed reporting on the views of Aung San Suu Kyi, the high-profile opposition leader who will run in an April 1 by-election for parliament.
The promise of a new media law
Before elections, the parliament is slated to discuss the possibility of a new media law during the coming weeks — the next set of hoped-for changes in a reforming Myanmar.
Until now, none of Myanmar’s recent media reforms have been fortified with actual amendments to existing legislation.
In the small, fan-cooled first-floor office of Myanmar Dhana magazine, editor Thiha Saw says official reform would be a major leap for media. “Hopefully the government will scrap the censor, they have said they will do so.”
A journalist from Myanmar Post, again asking not to be named, said he has concerns about some of the broad outlines of the proposed media law. So far, he says, “it does not make clear what can be published online.”
Mr. Thiha Saw says, “We have to play some kind of guessing game, as we don’t yet know what will be in the law.”
Publishers say an ideal law would drop censorship, and also allow daily newspapers in Myanmar, where newspapers can publish only once a week at the moment.
“It will be a challenge for our resources, but one we are eager to face,” says Thiha Saw, who also publishes a weekly news journal called Open News.
Khin Maung Swe, head of the opposition National Democratic Force (NDF), stressed that daily newspapers could help people in remote rural areas know more about what was happening in their country.
On top of that, because the market is restricted to weeklies, they are something of a niche product, and relatively expensive. If the law is changed to allow dailies, it would mean publishers could produce more, sell more, have a wider reach, and hence, presumably, price them more cheaply.
“Right now, the weekly journals only sell in the cities and towns, and they are too expensive,” says Mr. Khin Maung Swe. “Perhaps daily papers could sell more widely and for a lower price that people can afford, like 100 or 150 kyat [about 15 cents].”
More news freedom
BBC and VOA Myanmar language services have typically been denied access to the country in the past, but both had representatives at a rare media conference held in Yangon earlier this week.
And in another indication that the Myanmar’s media is becoming freer — there is talk of the possible return of exiled journalists and publications run by activists who fled repression at home.
In the past, Myanmar’s authorities jailed journalists working undercover in Myanmar for exiled media groups such as Democratic Voice of Burma.
Now, Mizzima, a New Delhi-based news service focused on Myanmar, is in discussions with the Myanmar authorities about opening a bureau in the country.
“It is good if they come back, as it shows the situation for media here is improving,” says Myint Kyaw.
Thiha Saw cautions that even after the proposed reforms, Myanmar is unlikely to have an unfettered press. “There will still be some government controls here, despite the changes taking place,” he says. “We will have more press freedom here, but it will not be like the US or the UK.”