A new documentary goes into the heart of the Myanmar Times newsroom and exposes the heavy government censorship of journalism in the lead-up to Myanmar’s first election in 20 years.
Dancing with Dictators, by Australian filmmakers Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow, premiered at Meta House in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
The documentary followed Myanmar Times co-founder and Phnom Penh Post publisher Ross Dunkley and other journalists at the Myanmar Times as they tried to gather political profiles on each electoral candidate.
Their efforts were met with stricter than usual censorship on news ready for publication and a refusal of some candidates to talk.
“I think the documentary was a fair assessment of how things at the Myanmar Times were running,” Dunkley said.
“A lot of people have been astonished learning about the whole thing, the system of censorship in the media and of the inside machinations of Myanmar.”
During the filming of the documentary Dunkley was arrested and several Myanmar Times journalists were deported due to visa issues. Piper and Barrow were also deported.
Though Piper and Barrow’s deportation hindered the filming, the making of the documentary wearily continued. Small amounts of footage of Dunkley appearing outside court were smuggled out of the country and siphoned off to the filmmakers in Australia.
“Once we had been deported and Ross’s court case commenced, it was quite frustrating as we had to do everything at arms length – but we had some great people helping us who believed in the value of the project,” Piper said.
Dunkley said the turn of events with his arrest and court trials was “a cruel game they played on me.”
“That was politics being played. I’m used to being a journalist, a publisher or editor, where I’m looking at and chasing the news and then suddenly I am the news – that’s weird.
“I think the film is only half finished. It really only takes you up to the point I was jailed and then released. Sadly it didn’t take into account the 20 times I was fighting in court to clear my name and that was by far the hardest battle I had to undergo.”
Perth mining magnate and Myanmar Times and Phnom Penh Post investor Bill Clough said: “I thought the documentary was excellent, I just hope it doesn’t get shown in Yangon.”
Dancing with Dictators had its world premiere at the Brisbane International Film Festival on December 11. It premiered in Dunkley’s hometown in Perth, Western Australian, on the weekend.
“The documentary is very surreal to me. I’ve been unable to jump in, I’m just a spectator watching on the outside,” Dunkley said.