Burma's Long Road

What happens to people after decades of censorship?

| January / February 2004

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.'

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