The next morning we taxied along the riverfront, past modern condos rising beside old government buildings getting facelifts. Young men clung to bamboo scaffolding 50 feet up, working among paint-chipped columns of an edifice whose backside seemed to have been forgotten since the Raj.
We met our friend, Hsann Nyein, an editor at The Modern Weekly News Journal. We were four years late for the appointment. He had invited us to visit his office when we finished teaching in Mandalay in 2009. “I was waiting for you!” he teased. We joked about our unexpected “government vacation.”
Hsann Nyein’s colleagues affectionately call him “Mr. Knife.” Reporters initially write their stories by hand, then he edits. Under the old government, all news followed a weekly cycle—it took that long to pass the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. But in August 2012, the government ended pre-publication censorship, and eight months later, daily papers were allowed to publish for the first time in half a century.
Still, many journalists told us, they tiptoe around sensitive subjects—culture, religion, military. “We have self-censorship,” Hsann Nyein said, for fear of what might happen post-publication. He edits each story word by word. “Some words I find . . . may be dangerous,” he said. “But I take a risk.” It’s a tactic born of previous times, when editors routinely pushed the limits. After democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from house arrest in 2010 (before the end of censorship), Eleven Media Group founder Than Htut Aung cleverly published a front-page headline with a hidden message that read, “Su free, unite and advance to grab the hope.” The move won his paper a two-week suspension—and a 2013 World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers media freedom award.
Everything in Burmese journalism is in transition today. The entire profession is learning on the job. In years past, my students asked how to sandwich the news inside their stories, hoping to get key information past censors. Now, reporters ask: How do I write straightforward news under daily deadlines? What can I do when government sources return my calls too late in the day? How can I see my family when I’m working 12-hour shifts? Burnout is a big new worry. “We Burmese journalists are suffering so many stresses,” Hsann Nyein wrote to me on Facebook a few months after we met in Yangon.
Modern Weekly, like many publications, doesn’t have the staff or money to make the transition to daily. Instead, editors respond with innovative writing styles. “We have to change the angle,” Hsann Nyein told us in his office. His paper publishes in-depth features and analyses to complement and compete with the spot news reports that now appear in dailies.
Publications compete not only for audience but qualified reporters and editors, said Yin Yin, another Burmese friend and editor who I had worked with in Thailand. Recruitment is harder now for Modern Weekly, which gets 10 to 20 percent the staff applications it did in previous years. Young reporters want a shot at daily news, which also tends to pay more. But some of the biggest competitors, she said, are writers posting to blogs and Facebook. “They are very fast.”
“But they are not well-trained,” Hsann Nyein added. Many Burmese bloggers “just hear news and post,” repeating rumors without checking facts. “Everyone is a citizen journalist,” editors across the Modern Weekly newsroom agreed, but not everyone has the ethics of a trained journalist. As anywhere, it’s the flipside to a free press in the digital age.
We discussed the pros and cons of protests: Are they good or bad for society? Hsann Nyein said Burmese citizens now protest their grievances in public. A protest, I suggested, can help people with little power to affect political or social change. It’s a form of speech. But in Yangon, he said, the government tries to convince the public that protests can hinder business and impede development. Plus, many citizens remain wary of anything that could prompt military action again. Society’s freedoms are new, but memories and caution run deep.