When Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy won 43 seats in the Myanmar parliamentary by-election on April 1, the streets of Yangon erupted in celebration.
“It was a wild party,” says NPR correspondent Anthony Kuhn, who traveled to Myanmar from Indonesia to cover the election. “Cars and trucks were buzzing all over, blasting music.”
The fact that Kuhn and about a hundred other foreign journalists were on hand to record Suu Kyi’s landslide triumph over Myanmar’s military regime was just the latest sign of how far democratic transformations – including new freedoms for the press – seem to have gone in Myanmar.
When President Thein Sein took power in March 2011, he promised to bring democratic reforms to a country ruled by military dictatorship for the past 50 years. In his inauguration address, President Sein called for sweeping changes and vowed to “respect the role of the media, the fourth estate.”
At the time, few expected his words would prove to be more than rhetoric in the country formerly known as Burma, where for decades, journalists have been jailed, beaten and censored because of their work.
“No one thought that what has happened in the past six months would happen,” says David Stout, editor of the English-language website for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit exile media group based out of Chiang Mai, Thailand. “Everyone is holding their breath for the next six months.”
One of the most visible signs of change in media freedom in Myanmar over the past six months can be found on the front page of many privately owned newspapers. A year ago, it would have been impossible to publish any story about Aung San Suu Kyi, the political opposition leader who has spent the better part of the past two decades under house arrest. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Ministry of Information, infamous for its exhaustive prior censorship of the local media, would have redlined any mention of the democratic icon. But since restrictions began to ease around June last year, Suu Kyi’s face now regularly graces the covers of independent newspapers across Myanmar.
“The local private media is exercising its rights and pushing the limits,” says Aye Aye Win, Yangon bureau chief for The Associated Press. “They are enjoying more freedom than last year.”
As recently as January, Myanmar ranked second on the Committee to Protect Journalists survey of the world’s most censored nations, and it came in 169 out of 179 nations on the annual index of press freedom published by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Although prior censorship has now been ended on a few subjects, such as entertainment, health, fashion, and sports, Myanmar’s censors still review all reporting on politics and other sensitive topics before publication. That practice puts Myanmar in the company of just a handful of other censorious governments – including North Korea, Cuba and Turkmenistan.
While in Myanmar to cover the elections, NPR’s Kuhn said he spoke to several editors of privately owned newspapers who described some of the still-forbidden topics.
Though it’s okay to show Suu Kyi, “you can’t show crowds that are too big,” says Kuhn. “[The Ministry of Information] also doesn’t want pictures of Buddhist monks marching in the street – that would look too much like the Saffron Uprising of 2007.” Led by Buddhist monks protesting government policies, the Saffron Uprising was violently suppressed by the military regime.
Still, as a foreign journalist covering local elections, Kuhn says that the environment was “pretty normal.”
“It was just like you’d cover an election anywhere,” says Kuhn who traveled to Myanmar using a journalist visa. “The infrastructure in Myanmar is so bad that it’s almost unworkable – the Internet is so slow, transportation is a mess. But if you can deal with that, there are no additional hassles from the government.”
Kuhn also says that Myanmar citizens were more than happy to speak to him on the record. “I didn’t see fear in their eyes when I interviewed them, which was encouraging,” says Kuhn. “People on the street are not afraid of saying what they know and expressing their opinions about politics. No one declined to give a name or seemed reticent about it.”
Many believe that Myanmar’s military regime hoped that the elections and the relaxation of some press restrictions would convince the United States and other Western governments to drop or at least ease longstanding sanctions that have squeezed Myanmar’s economy.
As it currently stands, the United States bans all imports from Myanmar and has banned Americans companies from doing business with or investing in Myanmar companies. The EU maintains similar policies.
On April 4, three days after Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the United States would start easing sanctions on Myanmar, with plans to send an ambassador to the country for the first time since 1988. If visible reforms continue, officials said the U.S. might allow investment in agriculture, tourism and telecommunications with the goal of helping ordinary Myanmar citizens rather than the military-controlled regime.
Press freedom advocates and some journalists say the United States and other governments are right to be cautious in regards to sanctions, while further change remains promised, but not yet implemented.
For example, the Myanmar government has promised to abolish prior censorship altogether, with a new media law currently being drafted. Among the changes, says the government: independent papers could publish on a daily basis for the first time in decades.
In a joint statement released on March 19, three of Myanmar’s most prominent exile publications, the Democratic Voice of Burma, the Irrawaddy, and Burma News International, called for an open discussion of the new media law, demanding that experienced Burmese media figures and international press freedom advocates be included in the drafting of the legislation.
“I find it hard to believe that there will be complete and unfettered press freedom just because the government says there will be,” says Kuhn. He believes that vague clauses and slippery wording in the new legislation might continue to limit press freedom, making the situation in Myanmar similar to those in countries such as Malaysia and Singapore.
But as the threat of censorship eases, journalists in Myanmar face a new problem – litigation. While the Ministry of Information restricted what the Myanmar media could say, it also provided a safety net of sorts, halting the publication of stories that could get reporters in trouble.
In January, a government construction engineer filed a libel suit against the managing editor and a reporter at the weekly magazine Modern Journal, after it published a story exposing corruption in the construction of roads and bridges in the Thabeikkyin Township. Speaking to Mizzima, an exile media group, Kyaw Yin Myint, a spokesman for Modern Journal said, “I think they sued us so that we wouldn’t write about bad roads and bridges again.” The case is still in trial.
There are now active lawsuits for stories that are deemed OK by the censors,” says Stout, the Democratic Voice of Burma editor. “You can publish a lot of what you want now. But once you publish it, you can still get stung for it.”
Stout is encouraged by the recent relaxation of censorship in Myanmar, but he believes that real improvements in press freedom will only occur when the law officially changes. “There’s a lot to be wary of,” he says. “There isn’t actually a rule of law in Myanmar, which makes all of these gestures extremely fragile.”
Still, Aung San Suu Kyi’s victory has inspired new optimism in the exile media community.
“At the moment, [Democratic Voice of Burma] is in the process of trying to get its foot in the door in Burma,” writes Stout in an email from April 10. “It’s too early to say if we’ll be opening an office there anytime soon, but we have people going in regularly on journalists visas, which was unthinkable six months ago.”
Mizzima, another exile publication, has already re-established offices in Yangon.
“All signs are saying that things are continuing to move ahead,” says Stout.
Milos Balac is a student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He can be reached on Twitter (@losh_me).