Despite democratic reforms, press freedom remains elusive in Myanmar

Aug 16, 2013

Credit Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP Photo

After nearly 50 years of military rule, the country officially known as Myanmar has slowly emerged from its near-lifetime of isolation and repression. Since 2011, the country has opened up to the international community and instituted a number of political reforms, including the release of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2012 the government ended its policy of media censorship.

Despite the progress the country has made, some organizations question Myanmar's recent record on press freedom. The Committee to Protect Journalists cast doubt on the government's commitment to an open reporting environment. And a recently proposed media law could reverse some of the gains the country has made since the ruling military junta was dissolved in 2011.

"In some ways there isn't a free press," said freelance journalist Gabrielle Paluch on the latest episode of Global Journalist.  "Because even though there's no censorship, there's still a completely hobbled justice system."

Since 2009 Paluch has lived and worked in Thailand and Myanmar, reporting for the Voice of America, Al Jazeera, Newsweek, the Christian Science Monitor and The Diplomat. She also worked for the government censored newspaper The Myanmar Times before the end of state censorship.

Paluch says authorities have used litigation to silence journalists in Myanmar. As an example, she cited the case of U Kyaw Min Swe, an editor for The Voice Weekly newspaper, whose reporters unearthed a graft scandal involving the Ministry of Mines. After exposing corruption in the ministry, the editor and the newspaper were sued for defamation.

The charges were later dropped, but Paluch says the the ordeal prevented The Voice Weekly from putting out its paper and posed a financial burden on the editor.

"They were, through the hobbled justice system, really able to stick it to him," Paluch said.

Paluch spoke to Global Journalist about press freedom in Myanmar. Listen to the full show above, or watch the video below. Here are some highlights from the interview:

On being censored in Myanmar

"It was at times infuriating, at times just completely perplexing. When I was working at the Myanmar Times, there was something kind of nice about having pre-censorship, because you knew it wasn't your job to censor yourself. So you could go ahead and write things and give it a go, and see whether or not it would get through."

On Myanmar's chief censor, U Tint Swe

"His nickname was "the literary torturer" because he did that work of censoring newspaper articles or novels or whatever he was given — he did that action of cutting words in [an] office that was formerly used to torture prisoners of war during World War II, when the Japanese were occupying Rangoon. So they compared the act of censorship to the act of torture. And what they said was that he was torturing ideas or thoughts."

On why she continues to report in Myanmar

"I guess the reason I keep going back is that there's such wonderful people there. And I'm really curious to see how it goes. I've been reporting this story for this long, and it's just now starting to get really interesting."