Sonny Swe, CEO of Frontier Myanmar Weekly Magazine, talks about negotiating with the censorship board in Myanmar, and building a career before and after prison.
Why did you become a journalist and publisher?
I started as a printer in 1996, and later worked at a regional newspaper in Mandalay.
Then I started my own publication, the Myanmar Times, in 2000. I partnered with an Australian publisher in Myanmar. He was a journalist, and so we combined our expertise. The Myanmar Times was the first private English-language newspaper in the country. It also became the most-read English-language paper in Myanmar.
The country was under a military regime, so every story was censored. That led to my imprisonment in 2004.
It was also difficult to find qualified journalists. So we recruited engineers, lawyers and dentists who spoke good English, and we trained them.
Was there a clear line between what you could and couldn’t say in the press at that time?
In 2000 there was a very clear line. For example, we couldn’t use the word ‘revolution’, and we could only write positive things about the country. If the censorship board rejected one word, they would reject the whole story.
We spent the first four years bargaining and pushing boundaries with the censorship board. For example, we negotiated the one-word rule; we asked the board to delete one paragraph, rather than the entire article.
It was good fun, in some ways.
A lot of people think that press freedom is for the press. But media freedom is for every living creature.
How did you get through your time in prison?
I was sentenced to 14 years in prison (and served eight years) for a crime that I didn’t commit, and so I think of it as tripping and falling, getting up and starting again. That’s how I stayed healthy and positive.
As soon as I got out, I went straight from the airport to the newsroom. My family were a bit annoyed about that.
A lot of journalists end up in prison, but somebody has to do it. I worry about going back to prison, but at least I know how to survive there.
Journalism isn’t about fame or money. It’s about doing the job. Our work is telling the truth.
How do you get started again professionally after prison?
My licence and printing presses had been taken away. I tried to acquire my shares back, which was complicated. The government didn’t want me to have my publication back.
I returned to the Myanmar Times as CEO for six months, but my relationship with my business partner had changed after the eight years I spent in prison. After six months, I joined another publication as CEO, then stepped down after 17 months.
My team came with me and we launched Frontier Myanmar.
One thing I learned in prison is to convert my anger to strength. That’s the only way. You have no choice but to do what you believe.