A veil was partially lifted from Myanmar last week. A half-century of suffocating draconian censorship laws edged towards its end as some of the world’s foremost novelists, journalists and political commentators – many of whom have intimate ties to the political opposition in Myanmar – joined their local counterparts at a literary festival in Yangon.
A week earlier, Myanmar’s all-seeing censor board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), had been dissolved and its redactors forced into early retirement. The event on the shores of Inya Lake became a fitting adjunct to the closure of a state organ that over the decades has sent dozens of political dissidents to jail.
Some of these, like the leading intellectual Ma Thida, who served nearly six years of a 20-year sentence on charges that included “distributing unlawful literature”, spoke candidly at the festival about the persecution they experienced. Their appearance, along with writers like Timothy Garton Ash, a close friend of Aung San Suu Kyi who for years was banned from entering Myanmar, was a bold statement of intent by the festival organisers and a consenting government.
But all that glitters is not gold. The dissolution of Myanmar’s own Orwellian Ministry of Truth was presaged by a strict set of guidelines issued to editors last year warning that “the state shall not be negatively criticised”. Nor, it said, should they publish “things that will damage ties with other countries”.
The rules demand that journalists rigorously self-censor their work and place an intimidating question mark over criticism of domestic and foreign policy. While the picture remains murky, given that many publications have reported on politically-sensitive actions by the government, such as the Kachin conflict, the ruling has already netted victims: in December, parliament passed, by an overwhelming majority, a motion to investigate a blogger by the name of Dr Seik Phwa.
Myanmar ends direct press censorship
In an article headlined “Is the parliament above the law?”, he questioned the influence that Myanmar’s legislature has over the judiciary, which despite laudable efforts by President Thein Sein, remains strong.
Nearly 350 MPs voted in favour of setting up an emergency committee to trace Dr Seik Phwa, by all accounts an unprecedented move. Nominally independent local media, like Weekly Eleven journal, provided their support, with lead articles that berated “the clandestine presentation of malicious ideas titled ‘Is there a parliament above the law?'”
The case is problematic for two reasons. One is the fact that a parliament dominated by uniformed military men and military-backed civilian MPs wants continued power over Myanmar’s courts. Most would consider this an anti-democratic move.
The second, which is especially pertinent given the government’s newfound paean to open media, is that the MPs who are hounding a blogger because he criticised them are the very people who will be voting on new laws regarding freedom of expression.
Up until two years ago, journalists in Myanmar were routinely rounded up and jailed under severe censorship laws: the Electronics Act could put someone behind bars for 20 years and the Video Act for 10 years. Comparatively few writers are now jailed, a development which should be applauded.
Yet, despite the case of Dr Seik Phwa being ostensibly about one man and one parliamentary motion, its ramifications are much bigger. The message is that free media is acceptable until it begins to threaten the structures of power in Myanmar that were designed by the hawkish elite to withstand the transition, of which control over the judiciary is one.
After delivering a talk on media freedom at the literary festival last week, Pe Myint, a prominent journalist and current head of the complaints committee at the newly formed Interim Press Council, was asked why parliament voted to hound Dr Seik Phwa. His answer verged on bitter irony: “It’s difficult to answer; it’s sensitive” – a telling example of the prevalence of self-censorship.
He then went on to argue that Dr Seik Phwa himself should not be used in a case study on press freedom because “he is using a pseudonym and is untraceable, so he himself is not using freedom of expression”. In light of parliament’s decision to track him, it is clear why the blogger continues to keep his real identity a secret.
Dr Seik Phwa occupies a position that any citizen of a country has the right to – that of holding its leaders to account. The moral obligation of policymakers is to listen to their subjects, rather than persecute them – the latter sends a strong signal that the vestiges of dictatorship are still very much there.
The free speech discourse in Myanmar is unsurprisingly littered with contradictions. Contrast Dr Seik Phwa’s critique, arguably a constructive and relevant one, with the hate-speech directed towards the Rohingya over the past eight months and which paradoxically has gone unpunished. This raises the crucial question of where the line stops with regards to free speech, a particularly delicate subject in societies where suffocating censorship is beginning to ease.
“Free media is acceptable until it begins to threaten the structures of power in Myanmar that were designed by the hawkish elite to withstand the transition…”
George Orwell said in his 1946 lecture – “The Prevention of Literature” – that “freedom of the press, if it means anything at all, means the freedom to criticise and oppose”. That may also be the point at which it should stop.
Veteran journalist Fergal Keane was on the ground in Rwanda in 1994 when the RTLM radio station began airing vitriolic racist propaganda directed largely at Tutsis (a Harvard University study later estimated the broadcasts were responsible for around 50,000 deaths during the genocide). His advice for censors is to draw the line at the point at which freedom of expression becomes a platform upon which to incite violence, as happened with the Rohingya.
While state media cannot be accused of vocally directing attacks in Rakhine state, the government has created an environment that has given birth to Facebook groups like “Kalar Beheading Gang” (Kalar being a derogatory term directed at the Rohingya). These qualify emphatically as platforms for violence and will have emerged in a climate of hatred quietly encouraged by Naypyidaw.
In addition, when headlines that bestialise their targets, such as “Bengali Rohingyas prowl around outside Rakhine city”, make it past the censor board and onto the pages of Weekly Eleven (now removed), one is right to question whether a clear bias within the government has contributed to the bloodshed in Rakhine state.
In this complicated and fragile period of transition, the impacts of media reform will be hugely amplified. Removing the lid too quickly has dangers of its own. “I think that virus of intolerance emerged from the lack of freedom of expression,” Ma Thida told the audience at the literary festival. “When we keep people silent, they become very intolerant, very violent.” In Rakhine state, that is exactly what has happened.
The debate now isn’t whether freedom of expression should flourish – it most certainly should – but whether it should go forward unrestrained. It’s a fine, but important, line, and where it is drawn will forever be the subject of contention.
Perhaps, the best way forward for Myanmar is to abide by a simple rule: to oppose and criticise the state is the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, but to tacitly encourage or incite violence directly threatens it. Switching the two around, as Myanmar’s censors have done, bodes ill for its future.
Francis Wade is a Thailand-based freelance journalist and analyst covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
Follow him on Twitter: @Francis_Wade