Burma: Traditional satirical performance returns, but so does censorship

Thangyat is a traditional form of entertainment performed for Burma’s New Year Thingyan Water Festival (taking place this week), made up of chanted satirical sketches with dance and percussion. The performances highlight all the things that went wrong in the past year, in the hope of avoiding repeating the same mistakes in the year to come. Thangyat was banned by the military government after the uprising in 1988 and was kept alive in exile before being allowed back last year.

Thangyat troupes, which can be up to 70 people strong, compete for cash prizes in heats leading up to the festival. The finalists perform on the main stage and the winner is announced on New Year’s Day. This year Sky Net, a new independent TV company, has sponsored the Thangyat competition and will broadcast it nationwide.

Thet Htoo / Demotix

— The first day of this year’s Thingyan Water Festival and Myanmar new year – Thet Htoo / Demotix

Sky Net required all participating teams to submit their scripts or videos of their work so they could vet the material. Index met members of one troupe that had been banned from  taking part.

The performers we met from the banned troupe believed Sky Net was more sensitive to political satire than the government, and were shocked and angry at being excluded. They thought that they had been banned for the generally political nature of their performance, rather than because they ventured into particular no-go zones. The troupe is going ahead with their performance anyway but their shows will not be broadcast; they are making their own documentary instead.

In Mandalay pre-censorship remains in the hands of city authorities and when I was there earlier in the week the first ever all-woman Thangyat ensemble was waiting to hear back from the censors. The women are teachers and students from a college in the city who have formed a group to preserve Burmese traditions — in particular traditional dress for women.

I was lucky enough to see an early rehearsal of this group, which took place in a monastery in a strange wilderness district of the city where huge, gated mansions mainly built for the Chinese buyers, are springing up around the monastery compound. The women, accompanied for the rehearsal by two percussionists, were working in an ornate communal building without walls and very young monks crowded in to hear the women rehearse.

Their performance is a passionate litany of biting satire that highlights the threats to Burmese culture, traditional life-style, and environment from business interests, with Chinese influence particularly targeted. The contentious Letpadaung Copper Mine, deforestation and the suspended Myetsone damn project were all targets. I heard that they are determined to perform their show as it is, whatever the censors say.

That Thangyat will be part of the celebrations again after 25 years is a sign of the times — and reveals the opening up of space for freedom of expression in Burma. But the fact that the comeback is being so closely scrutinised by both political and corporate interests illustrates the power of Thangyat to hit where it hurts.

As government pre-censorship is to some extent loosening its grip on arts and entertainment in Burma, as it appears to be, it is interesting to see corporate censorship stepping comfortably into its shoes. And as corporate censorship is a global phenomenon, it is something that artists all over the world, not just here in Burma, are increasingly concerned about.

Private daily newspapers return to Burma

Monday (1 April) heralded the return of private daily newspapers to Burma. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the state has held highly restrictive powers to license newspapers and publishers creating one of the most hostile environments on earth for a free print media. Since the transition period of the past few years began, President Thein Sein has signalled that the government would liberalise restrictions on the media. Prior to the return of daily newspapers, privately-owned weekly journals had begun to flourish as demand for independent news markedly increased. On 1 February this year, the government launched the process to allow the independent media to bid for daily licenses.

Index on Censorship spoke to journalists and proprietors in Burma during a recent mission to the country in March. The return of independent daily newspapers has not been without incident. The government refused to grant licenses for daily publication to a number of publications including the Eleven Media Group, apparently because their application lacked an official revenue stamp valued at 100 kyats ($0.12). This decision was overturned in March and the group will launch its daily newspaper “The Daily Eleven” symbolically on World Press Freedom Day on May 3 according to AP.

Previously news was published in weekly journals that reviewed news and politics and had to submit all their proofs to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) prior to publication (hence weekly publication). According to state journal the New Light of Myanmar, the termination of the PSRD was signed off at the cabinet meeting of 24 January 2013. Though ominously, the report claimed a new “Copyrights and Registration Division” would be formed under the Information and Public Relations Department.

Index on Censorship views the licensing of newspapers as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of the media. The registration process for daily newspapers in Burma has been particularly restrictive with the application requiring a code of practice, a code of ethics and a code of conduct for the publication — even though the Press Council is working on a series of ethical codes for journalists as part of its on-going negotiations to draft a more proportionate press law.

One editor told Index he had applied for a press license on 21 February and had not yet heard of the result by 13 March. The application was over 80 pages in total and the local authorities stated the application needed to be in both Burmese and English. Journalists told Index several questions on the application for a daily newspaper license concerned the previous political activities of the applicant, which raised concerns that political considerations will be taken into account when awarding the limited number of licenses proposed.

Further advances in media freedom are expected in the coming months, with foreign journalists to be given working visas from mid-April (rather than taking the risk of a tourist visa as is the norm now) and the BBC hoping to broadcast its global news channel in Burma later this year. Reporters Without Borders has moved Burma’s ranking in its Press Freedom Index up 18 places to 151 out of 179 countries.

Yet, old habits die hard. On the first day of new daily newspapers, the government kept the independent media at arm’s length from an official state visit by the President of Singapore Tony Tan Keng Yam with only the official state media allowed into the press conference surrounding the trip. A forthcoming Index report into the state of freedom of expression in Burma will examine these trends in further detail.

Index Award winner Beatrice Mtetwa detained by Zimbabwe police

This is a guest post by Nani Jansen, Senior Legal Counsel, Media Legal Defence Initiative

Beatrice Mtetwa is one of Zimbabwe’s most high profile lawyers. Renowned for her lack of fear she has long been the go-to lawyer for human rights activists, politicians and journalists threatened by the hard hand of Robert Mugabe’s regime.

She has won international awards aplenty — the Index on Censorship Law Award 2006, CPJ’s Press Freedom Award in 2005; Ludovic-Trarieux International Human Rights Prize of the European Bar Human Rights Institute in 2009, and the International Human Rights Award of the American Bar Association in 2010 — but at home, her defence of Mugabe’s opponents has won her few friends among the regime. In 2003, she was arrested on spurious allegations of drunk driving and beaten by police; and in 2007, Ms Mtetwa and three of her colleagues were beaten by police at a protest against police harassment of lawyers in Harare.

Now she has been arrested again — this time for allegedly “obstructing the course of justice”.

Last Sunday, she was arrested, together with three senior MDC officials, at the house of one of Prime Minister Tsvangirai’s advisers — Thabani Mpofu. She had been called to Mpofu’s house in the morning, when he was arrested and his house was being searched. Upon arrival, Ms Mtetwa asked the police officers conducting the search to produce a search warrant, which they refused. When she protested against continuation of the search, the officers tried to take away her cell phone and purse. Upon resisting this attempt, she was placed under arrest for “obstructing the course of justice.”

After the arrest, Mtetwa was taken to Rhodesville police station in Harare. An urgent petition for her release was filed by the human rights group Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, which was granted just before midnight. However, police have refused to comply with the court order and Ms Mtetwa is still being held in detention. She is reportedly being moved from one police station to the other prevent her lawyers from officially serving the court order and has been denied access to counsel.

The Media Legal Defence Initiative, on whose international advisory board Ms Mtetwa serves, has now filed a formal petition with the African Union and United Nations’ special mandates for the protection of human rights defenders, the independence of lawyers and freedom of expression for their urgent intervention. While Zimbabwean police refuse to comply with court orders, international pressure — including from the African Union — is hoped to have a result.