I was in Yangon on March 9 to hear an address by Burmese opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi to an international media conference called “Challenges of a Free Press,” hosted by the East-West Center. In tackling the issue of freedom of speech, she spoke at length about the media’s “responsibility.”
[Without a free press] . . . we will not be able to defend the rights and freedoms of the people. But at the same time, this press has to be aware not just of its great power and influence, but of the great responsibility that it bears for the building of a new nation that is centered on the will of the people.
Some of the participants shook their heads in disappointment at these remarks, suggesting an emphasis on responsibility was inopportune, and sounded too much like official-ese.
In the days following the speech, as I toured the independent Irrawaddy newspaper, the independent Myit ma Kha newswire, and the various journalism schools that have now opened their doors in Myanmar, I asked my friends what they thought of Aung San Suu Kyi’s emphasis on responsibility.
Lives in Myanmar are being transformed, and for the Chinese journalists taking part in the conference, there was a palpable sense of envy. Controls on the media in Myanmar have been abrogated. Independent media have now been legalized and legitimized. Media that once could survive only overseas have been transplanted back to their home soil. And yet, the Burmese journalists I met did not feel at all that freedom had been achieved. Facing the restrictions of a permit system for newspapers, the strong position held by state-run media, and covert controls on the media by the government, there was an strong feeling among local journalists that the road to freedom was still a long one stretching out before them.
The editor-in-chief of the English-language edition of the Irrawaddy would not say explicitly whether or not he felt Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech was full of official-ese. He did say, however, that “the most urgent task before us is to achieve freedom of speech.”
The “responsibility” of the media is also an important test facing Burmese journalists. After more than fifty years of military rule, Myanmar faces change on an unprecedented scale. Media in Myanmar must grapple with a host of issues and challenges. There is, of course, the major national election that will happen soon. And there are many other issues — political pluralism, ethnic conflict, environmental destruction and, thanks to the internet, a richness of information such as the country has never seen.
Faced with this complex of problems and issues, journalists in Myanmar are insufficiently prepared. During the past half century of military rule, there was no journalism education at all in the country. When I visited the new journalism schools that have cropped up, and the independent newswire, those in charge spoke with clear concern about just how youthful the new generation of journalists is, how they lack sufficient training. They urgently need instruction in professional ethics, investigative methods and comprehensive and fair reporting. This was how the educators and editors understood the question of “responsibility.”
There is no time to waste. The media in Myanmar have to work fast to raise their level of professionalism, allowing them to work more independently and avoid being manipulated by interested parties.
Freedom and responsibility are both essential to the media. But the situation in China with respect to freedom of speech lags so far behind that of Myanmar, and the circumstances journalists in either country face are so different.
In China, media are subjected to stringent controls. The ideals of freedom of speech and freedom of expression enshrined in Article 35 of the Constitution have in actual fact become a mockery. On the one hand, the Chinese Communist Party bitterly attacks the notion of freedom of speech, and on the other it shouts at the top of its voice about “the responsibility of the media.” In China, “responsibility” is much more than official-ese filling one’s ears — it is a weapon with which the government beats the media down.
There was a great deal of opposition last year when Chinese police abused their power to detain a journalist from Guangzhou’s New Express newspaper, after which official Party media illegally aired the journalist’s confession. But shame was quickly added to outrage as it was revealed that the journalist in question had actually accepted bribes. The fact is, Chinese media face a crisis of ethics, and there is a deep rift between those journalists who emphasize responsibility and refuse to tolerate what they see as a fall from grace, and those who see responsibility as a trap. Some Chinese journalists feel that talk of “responsibility” in a China without the most basic speech freedoms essentially means aiding repression.
During my visit to Myanmar, I puzzled again over these two issues — freedom and responsibility. In my view, freedom and responsibility are difficult to separate. The media’s responsibility (媒体责任) is a pledge to society and to the public by those in the media. It is not a “responsibility” on the part of shackled media to serve as tools of power. The media’s responsibility is the responsibility of those who have freedom, and also the responsibility of those who seek it. In the process of pursuing freedom, we cannot abandon our sense of responsibility. And there is an implicit danger in the idea that we must first seek freedom and only afterwards uphold responsibility (先自由，後责任).
In China’s troublesome environment, journalists who forsake responsibility do themselves harm by offering the government a legitimate pretext for striking out against the media. This is why the investigative reporter Lu Yuegang (卢跃刚), one of our fellows at the China Media Project, once said when asked how journalists can protect themselves against retaliation: “The truth. Only verifiable truth can offer me protection.”
In this sense, I understand Aung San Suu Kyi’s emphasis on responsibility. “Politicians look to the next election,” she said, “but political leaders must look to the next generation.” The sense I got from Aung San Suu Kyi was that of an opposition leader for whom the driving force was not opposition itself, but who was looking ahead to the election and to her life in leadership.
Her sentiment was light years away from the reality facing us in China, but I felt I had to make note of it, and had to share it with all of those friends working diligently for freedom.
This essay was previously published in Chinese by Taiwan’s Storm Media.