Freeing the Press: The 'end' of censorship in Myanmar
Wearing black T-shirts that read: "Stop killing press," journalists walk to collect signatures from members of the media in Yangon, Myanmar, Saturday, Aug. 4, 2012. (AP Photo/Khin Maung Win)
Published Monday, August 20, 2012 11:56AM EDT
Last Updated Monday, August 20, 2012 12:15PM EDT
In a tiny converted garage near a Buddhist temple, members of the band “Side Effect” pushed through a ritual of rehearsal. Guitars were plugged in and twanged and speakers were adjusted. They did not talk much. The drummer hiked up his jeans before rattling his sticks along the drum kit borrowed from another band until they can afford their own.
“It has been really hard to survive and to not switch away from music,” Darko C., the band’s lead singer told me, in a way that partly apologized for the walls covered in egg cartons for soundproofing. “It’s not like being in a band in Western countries.”
The reality was that being Myanmar’s most popular punk band carried its own unique set of, well, side effects. Popular in Yangon’s underground music scene, they were known among fans for their spiked hair, tattoos, and explosive sound with catchy lyrics. But in a country long notorious for censorship of anything artistic, by consequence “Side Effect” was known too by authorities.
“You lived with concern there might be a knock on the door,” said Darko, during an interview in Yangon this spring as reforms in Myanmar were taking shape, “Someone would tell you to step outside to talk and poof... you’d disappear.”
During the era of Myanmar’s military rule, media censorship was harsh and swiftly enforced. The sweeping measures targeted newspapers, journals, song lyrics, even fairy tales. By law, nothing could be published or reach radio or television without the pre-approval of state censors. If it did? Prison or worse awaited the offenders who were hunted and caught by the junta.
That grip started to ease just over a year ago, when Tint Swe, the head of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD) declared that censorship in Myanmar would be abolished as it was “incompatible with democratic practices”. It was seen then as one of the more dramatic reforms undertaken by the new and mostly civilian government.
Mr. Swe today told a group of news editors in Yangon that, “Censorship began on 6 August 1964 and has ended 48 years and two weeks later.”
It means permission for and unrestricted access to some 300 newspapers and magazines, thousands of internet sites, political and religious journals, and original songs that touch at controversial topics. It would have all been unthinkable in the past, when dissenters were routinely corralled for having opinions and the audacity to voice them.
An unnamed magazine editor told the AFP news agency, “This is a great day for all journalists in Myanmar, who have labored under these odious restrictions for far too many years.”
While the censorship reforms are widely regarded as landmark and crucial, such fundamental change to a system so ingrained can also be fraught with risk and worry. Can the “new rules” be trusted? Or will “freedom of speech” find a way to the “wrong” side of the law? Even this month, two publications were suspended for reporting on a cabinet shuffle, according to The Wall Street Journal, which triggered unprecedented protests by journalists.
To be clear, there is not a complete removal of restrictions as a degree of media monitoring will remain. Films are still subject to a set of rules and standards, and journalists are required to submit work after publication to verify it complies with the new guidelines. The government urged “responsible” reporting.
For reporters, writers, artists and self-proclaimed rockers like “Side Effect”, old habits may prove tricky to alter.
“It’s hard to know if we are free to write that sort of stuff,” said Darko of taboo subjects like politics, “It’s still very uncertain to be critical. We have been living in this situation our whole lives... so the brain is still censoring itself.”