Monday, July 24, 2017

Censorship: a foreigner’s experience

Geoffrey Goddard conducting a journalism workshop at The Myanmar Times in December 2009. (Supplied)Geoffrey Goddard conducting a journalism workshop at The Myanmar Times in December 2009. (Supplied)

I am confident I am speaking on behalf of all journalists working in the private sector in Myanmar – and perhaps most of those working for state-run newspapers – when I say that up until August this year censorship has been the curse of our professional lives.

On a personal level my response to censorship has ranged from quiet exasperation to furious contempt. Censorship has been the cause of outbursts in the news room which proved beyond any doubt to many of my Myanmar colleagues that I am an uncivilised barbarian; it is the ostensible reason why my dearest Myanmar friend, Sonny Swe, the former deputy CEO of The Myanmar Times, one of the few civilian victims of the purge of Military Intelligence in 2004, was sentenced to 14 years’ jail the following year. It was eight years in November since he was taken away.

I knew that I would be working under one of the worst censorship regimes in the world when I accepted a position with The Myanmar Times in June 2001, so what was the attraction?

The attraction was that I had already spent more than 10 years working in this part of the world, most of them in Thailand, but also in Singapore and Cambodia, and I badly wanted to return, even if that involved breaking a promise I had made to myself after the tragic events in Myanmar in 1988 that I would never come back here until it was a democracy.

Another factor was that working under censorship was not a new experience: During the 10 years I worked for Radio Australia I was selected for an exchange program with Radio Beijing and I worked there from December 1988 until a few days after the Tiananmen massacre. After I left Radio Australia in 1997, I spent 18 months working for a government radio station in Singapore.

Those experiences of working with censorship certainly made it easier to adjust to my position as editor of the English edition of The Myanmar Times, a position I held until the end of 2005. But that did not mean there were some censorship decisions which either appalled or amazed me. And some which did not surprise me at all, mainly involving Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

Perhaps here I should describe the process. The Myanmar Times was censored by Military Intelligence until it was purged in October 2004. We had to fax a copy of every story to an MI office and would get a call back to say if a story was rejected or had to be cut. We also had to send MI an A3 of the front page, which was often adjusted under its orders.

After the MI purge we were censored, like all private sector publications, by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), to which we had to send A3 copies of every page. To fill holes caused by stories or pictures being rejected or cut, we had to send what we called alternate stories as backups. It was also necessary to roster a sub-editor on every Saturday night to make the necessary adjustments to pages after they had been mutilated by the censor. A minor upside of the end of pre-publication censorship in August was no longer having to squander our Saturday nights on tasks that involved a denial of the truth.