Self-censorship in the mainstream media has become increasingly commonplace since 9/11. As CBS anchor Dan Rather told a BBC-TV interviewer in May 2002, the hyperpatriotic mood in the United States 'keeps journalists from asking the toughest of the tough questions.'
Mainstream American journalists may justify their behavior as a matter of upholding 'professional standards' or not wanting to look unpatriotic. But as anyone comparing foreign news coverage with the U.S. media's kid-glove treatment of the Bush administration can tell you, on issue after issue, from the Iraq war to Enron to global climate change, the trend toward self-censorship in this country is obvious, and troubling.
For a chilling view of where that path can lead a society, look at Burma, also knows as Myanmar.
Government censors in this Southeast Asian country actually don't have much work to do, reports Tony Broadmoor in Third World Resurgence (July/Aug. 2003). After years of brutal repression, Burmese writers and publishers know where the lines are drawn and how to avoid crossing them. For them, self-censorship is not just about upholding professional standards; it is often the only thing protecting them from government harassment or imprisonment.
'I've never tried to publish political books,' one Rangoon-based publishing house owner tells Broadmoor. And if someone wrote something sensitive, he says, he wouldn't take it to the Press Scrutiny Board, Burma's official censorship body, which must give its blessing to all books sold in the country. Instead of pushing the boundaries, publishers focus on books they know the PSB is likely to approve -- mostly translations of English-language classics like Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter and the novels of Ernest Hemingway. Typically it takes six months for the PSB to approve a book, though it can take years for the agency to approve more controversial works, and some books never see print at all.
Anything that smacks even remotely of politics will have a hard time, writes Broadmoor. 'The writings of Niccolo Machiavelli did not make it onto shelves, while Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America took six long years to pass the PSB.'
Still, despite 40 years of repression and official censorship, Burmese writers continue putting pen to paper, carefully. 'We try our best to express in very discreet ways the life of the ordinary people,' one prominent Burmese writer tells Broadmoor. It's hard, he says, 'but we continue to write as much as possible.'
Perhaps the most chilling effect of Burma's culture of censorship has been its impact on the country's youth. 'The majority of young people feel down and out,' one prominent Rangoon-based writer says, lamenting their lack of curiosity about literature and politics. 'Their hopes have faded. They don't care about democracy.'
Considering the difficulties, it's understandable that writing is not a sought-after career path among Burma's youth. 'You have to think about every word you write,' complains one journalist working for a weekly business magazine. 'Young people now don't want to be writers. It's just too dangerous.'
The Burmese military junta's authoritarian controls on free expression may sound like a different universe to us. After all, this is America.
But it is the same America that throughout its history has seen book burnings, lynchings, and various government-sponsored witch hunts. And in George Bush's America, where former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer can cavalierly state that the press needs to 'watch what they say,' Burma should serve as a stark warning of what is possible.
Published bimonthly by the Third World Network in Penang, Malaysia, Third World Resurgence provides perspectives from Third World writers and activists on the whole range of issues facing people in developing countries: the environment, health and basic needs, international affairs, politics, economics, culture. Subscriptions: $30/yr. (12 issues) from Third World Network, 121-S Jalan Utama 10450 Penang, Malaysia; www.twnside.org.sg