Social media plays a key role in the fight for freedom and human rights globally, but not every country in the world is part of the Twitterverse, and the responsibility of journalists, and newspapers in particular, to stand up to dictatorships is undiminished.
Than Htut Aung, head of Eleven Media Group, Myanmar’s main independent news organization, took on such a regime. He worked for freedom in the face of harassment and strict media laws that threatened severe punishment. During the worst of the repression under military rule, he inserted political messages into sports stories, ideas such as “Football is played not just by the 22 but the whole audience.”
As the regime began the slow process of reform and took tentative first steps toward freedom, he continued to push. In 2010, one of Eleven Media’s publications was banned for two weeks because of a message hidden in a headline following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, a message that read: “Su free, unite and advance. “ The presentation by the World Editors Forum of the Golden Pen of Freedom Award to Than Htut Aung is a much deserved recognition of a brave journalist. Social media was not about to facilitate change in a country with the world’s lowest prevalence of cellular phones. But journalists in that country did their work to end the repression.
In accepting the award, Than Htut Aung spoke poignantly to delegates at the global conference of newspaper publishers and editors: “Since I was born, I have always lived under a dictatorship. Now after five decades… freedom is in front of me.”
He added, however, that Myanmar’s transition to democracy “will not be as smooth as you think.” The resolve of Than Htut Aung and others like him is vital to that process of continued reform.