YANGON, Myanmar >>It was a newspaper article that just months ago, Myanmar’s draconian state censors never would have approved.
It told how prison authorities crudely attempted to cure a scabies outbreak by wiping down naked inmates with medicine-laden brooms — a demeaning act that revealed the poverty of the nation’s prisons and the decrepit state of its health care system.
“In the past it would’ve been a very dangerous thing to publish,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, who wrote the story and was a political prisoner himself until last month. “It wasn’t allowed.”
But in a sign of just how much is changing in this long-oppressed nation, it was allowed. The article was not only published this month in the Health Journal, a Yangon-based weekly, but it hit the streets without having to be reviewed first by the government’s infamous censorship body, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department.
Journalists have been jailed, beaten and blacklisted for decades in Myanmar, and the government continues to censor reporting about politics and other subjects it deems sensitive. But since last year, when the nation’s long-entrenched military junta stepped down, censorship has ended on subjects such as health, entertainment, fashion and sports, and reporters are testing the limited freedom that has begun to emerge.
Today, images of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, once a highly taboo figure, routinely appear on the front pages of everything except state-controlled media. And the days of buying foreign publications, only to find sensitive stories cut out, are over.
“It’s much more relaxed,” said Thiha Saw, chief editor of a news weekly called Open News, who said he’s now able to write freely about fires, murders and natural disasters — all prohibited at various times in the past.
The government has gone even further, promising to abolish censorship altogether once the parliament approves a new media law later this year. The legislation, currently being drafted, would effectively allow Myanmar’s independent press to publish on a daily basis for the first time in decades.
As recently as last fall, the future of journalism seemed grim in this Southeast Asian nation, which is also known as Burma. Reporters were still subjected to routine state surveillance, phone taps and censorship so intense that many were forced to work anonymously, undercover. In January, Reporters Without Borders ranked the country a lowly 169 out of 179 nations in its annual press freedom survey.
Few expected much change when the junta ceded power last March. The new government, dominated by a clique of retired officers, had risen to power in an election widely considered neither free nor fair.
But in an inaugural speech, President Thein Sein promised sweeping democratic reform, and vowed to “respect the role of the media, the fourth estate.”
In June, the government quietly began removing blocks on once-banned foreign news websites. It also began allowing international newspapers and magazines to be sold without sensitive sections cut out.
Exiled reporters, for decades among the country’s most fervent critics, have been allowed to return and report freely, along with once-blacklisted correspondents from foreign news organizations, including The Associated Press.
“Things are moving in the right direction,” the Committee to Protect Journalist’s Southeast Asia representative, Shawn W. Crispin, said Tuesday in Bangkok.
But he added, “The reforms we’ve seen are just scratching the surface. By any objective measure, Burma’s media is still among the most repressed in the world.”
Nine reporters have been freed this year, but three remain behind bars, he said.
While “publications have been allowed to put Suu Kyi on the cover and report some of the things she says … there are plenty of areas the press is not allowed to venture into, including any critical reporting of the ongoing conflict” between ethnic Kachin insurgents and the army in the north.
Saw, the Open News editor, said a team of around 50 government censors still spikes about 10 percent of the content in his 30-page journal each week.
But even that is progress. In the past, he said, censors were not averse to scrapping entire editions.
“We don’t really expect freedom of expression in a few months or a few years,” the bespectacled journalist told the AP in an interview in his small Yangon office, where a poster of Suu Kyi hangs on the wall.
Censorship has been in place in Myanmar one way or another since a 1962 military coup, he said, and “we still have a long, long way to go.”
Now, writing about peace talks between the government and ethnic rebels is OK, Saw said, but stories about fighting between them are not. Pictures of refugees aren’t allowed, and neither are articles about past crimes or corruption allegedly committed by ruling party officials. Also taboo: stories about student activists (like the ones who rose up in 1988) and monks (like the ones who rose up in 2007).
When dissident monk Shin Gambira was briefly detained by authorities earlier this month, “that story was killed, too,” Saw said in an email Monday. “We just keep on pushing.”
U Tint Swe, Myanmar’s censorship boss, told the AP that censorship had historically been needed to maintain stability. But he said such edicts will be a soon be a thing of the past.
“Once the press law is out, there will be no need for the press scrutiny department at all,” Swe said.
Journalists here are looking forward to the freedom to write freely, but they worry, too. The end of censorship will remove government responsibility for the printed press, leaving reporters liable for prosecution. Some laws that have been used to sentence journalists to long jail terms will also remain on the books.
Crispin said that as long as the recent, sweeping reforms are not enacted into law, reporters will remain “skeptical that the regime could yank the rug out from under them any time down the road.”
And indeed, progress could easily be reversed. Suu Kyi and other opposition politicians are running in parliamentary by-elections in April, but only a few dozen seats are up for grabs and the current government is assured of staying in power until national elections in 2015.
Htwe said he wrote his article about the prison “in a very careful manner, very mildly, so the government would not be offended.”
He had special reason to be concerned. Htwe was one of hundreds of political prisoners released in a Jan. 13 amnesty, and the article was his first since going back to work.
In 2008, he was sentenced to 19-year jail term, in part for distributing a video of local donors handing out aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis. The natural disaster killed about 140,000 people, but journalists were only allowed to report official state statistics about the devastation.
Some journalists in Myanmar suspect the government is less interested in freedom for journalists than it is in ending Western economic sanctions.
“They want the international community to think there is press freedom here,” Htwe said. “But I feel that all these changes that are being made, they aren’t coming from the heart. They aren’t sincere.”