Two Burmese journalists have won an important media prize in Europe and what’s more, were allowed to travel to Paris to collect it.
Paris based Reporters without Borders awarded the Burmese media group, Weekly Eleven, the Best Media Award of the year. It’s not the first time that Burmese reporters have won international prizes but it’s notable that this time representatives of Weekly Eleven were in Paris openly receiving their award.
The Burmese spring?
It’s perhaps a sign of the thaw in Burma – long regarded as one of the world’s most closed nations – that is so exciting the West these days. Since the recent elections last year, when (former general) Thein Sein became the country's first civilian president since the 1962 military coup, Burma has tried to present a more democratic face to the world.
Normally secretive military rulers – some of whom retired to take on leading functions - have been giving unprecedented interviews to foreign media. The Director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, the PSRD, Tint Swe, a retired major, has publicly said he believes that press freedom will come “within an appropriate time” in Burma. He even went so far as to say that he felt that his own censorship office should be shut down.
The PSRD has had a tight hold on Burmese media since it was set up soon after the coup that brought in the brutal, closed, sometimes bizarre rule of the military junta. Burmese journalists learnt the fine art of self-censorship. To survive, they invented novel ways of telling the people what was going on in the country, encrypting forbidden information in poems, in the first letters of lines of text, or in between- the- lines messages. And Burmese people learnt how to interpret their news.
Nargis a forbidden topic
In 2008, when Cyclone Nargis killed hundreds of thousands of people, destroying farms, rice stocks, and buildings, and left millions of people without shelter and adequate water and food, government newspapers such as the New Light of Myanmar showed the then ruler General Than Shwe visiting impeccably neat lines of “aid tents” and "grateful citizens". But within 24 hours, dvds showing the devastation of the delta region were being distributed on the streets of Yangon for a few cents.
Journalists and citizen journalists who tried to portray the realities of Nargis and its afternmath were severely dealt with. The country’s most famous entertainer, Zaganar who organized food convoys to the Delta, and who spoke to foreign journalists about the disaster, was arrested. He was charged with “public order offenses” and sentenced to 59 years in prison, later brought down to 35 years. He was one of the couple of hundred prisoners released on an amnesty earlier this year.
Journalists risk their lives and pay in lifetimes
Last year, photojournalist Sithu Zeya was sentenced to eight years in prison for photographing the scene of an explosion in Rangoon; earlier this year, his sentence was extended by a decade for breaching the Electronics Act which forbids the dissemination of information via the internet. Sithu's father, also a journalist with the exiled media Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) is currently serving a 13 year sentence.
In 2010, another DVB reporter Hla Hla Win was sentenced to 20 years for violating the Electronics Act, her helper, Myint Naing is serving seven years. They are 17 DVB journalists currently behind bars - most of them weren't included in the recent amnesty.
According to Benjamin Ismail from RWB, Burma’s “press freedom” is still a nascent thing. He says that articles on sports, arts and lifestyle don’t have to go through the censorship board any more, but all articles on politics and economics are still very much censored. Burmese journalists know they have to be very careful when encroaching on “no go” areas such as government corruption or ethnic violence.
But it’s still worth celebrating the victories, no matter how small - the award ceremony last week for instance. And in January 2012, Yangon will host its first film festival in decades. The festival is sponsored by Aung San Suu Kyi, and the irrepressible Zaganar is one of the organizers. And for the first time in half a century, Burmese people will have a chance to see films which have not been previewed first by the Censorship Board .