There is a tendency among those of us who value freedom of speech to believe that the virtuous thing to do is to speak out, access be damned. I don’t know that that is always the right impulse. I don’t know that I did the right thing in trading access to people trapped in Burma for a few opinion pieces critiquing vapid Western media coverage of the country. The world does not need another American reporter declaring the junta barbaric and incompetent, a position for which there is almost no opposition in the United States. Indeed, those intent on raising awareness have done harm by encouraging both economic sanctions and hardliners within the junta. I have never understood how American “awareness” of the Myanmar situation was supposed to help the Burmese trishaw driver surviving on two meals a day.
There is one young woman in Myanmar who continues to write me from time to time, thanking me for the time I spent coaching her toward competent journalism. I spent months teaching her how to structure a piece, a skill that does not come at all naturally to people raised in countries without an independent journalistic tradition. Surely helping her shape a single article was more important than any Burma-related op-ed I’ve written. And yet I’ve traded the right to go back-to have influence over individual lives-for the right to spill some ink. I am a journalist by nature, and it’s possible that I would do it all over again. But there is at least an argument to be made for playing by the rules of a paranoid military dictatorship to maintain access to the lives inside.
Jan 27 2009