As Burma Totters Toward Reform, Limits Remain on Press Freedom
Since coming to power, President Thein Sein has mentioned the importance of the fourth pillar in society and revealed that both he and his office follow media reports in and outside of Burma. During my recent trip to the country, I was told that the president was eager to see freedom of the press blossom. I still have some reservations.
What I gather is that Thein Sein has ordered the restoration of the press council in Burma. In the past, the press council was comprised of respected and powerful media moguls and editors. Recreating it will stir things up among tycoons due to personal jealousy, rivalry and egotism.
Indeed, how much press freedom and independent media the former general will support remains questionable. Editors in Rangoon are also perplexed by the relationship between the President’s Office and Ministry of Information.
There is a deep suspicion that the pair do not see eye to eye in developing media in Burma, let alone in allowing editors to have increased authority or even the final say. The top-down approach and close control mentality is still alive.
The fact is that some governments and representatives of donor countries have been bluffed on recent media developments in Burma and the censorship board remains very active.
Deep-seated doubts linger as many in the sector share a feeling that the government will find a way to continue controlling the media. Burma still has several draconian security laws and a notorious Electronic Act that can justify the arrest and detention of anyone, including journalists, without due process. In terms of press freedom, Burma is ranked 169 out of 179 countries, according to Reporters Without Borders in January.
The Ministry of Information is now drafting a media law but controversy has surfaced, as the proposed legislation has not been presented to anyone. At a media conference (the first in many years) held in Rangoon in January, censorship chief Tint Swe, head of the Department for Press Scrutiny and Registration, said the new legislation would be called the Printing Press and Publication Law. It will have 10 chapters, including “Rights, Duties and Ethical Codes for Writers and Journalists” and “Penalties.” He presented the table of contents but no details of the law itself.
The current censorship board will be dissolved, with a “Committee for Press Freedom and Raising Ethical Standards” taking its place.
What is alarming is that the draft law was adapted from the repressive Printers and Publishers Registration Act enacted in Burma after the 1962 military coup. Also, no one from either the independent or private media was invited to review or discuss the proposed legislation. Moreover, there is no guarantee that it will protect press freedom or journalists.
Respected Burmese journalist Ludu Sein Win wrote a recent article that the censorship board refused to publish inside Burma in which he blasted those who attended the media conference for “helping to make the rope to hang themselves.” He called for the participation of journalists and media figures in drafting the media law.
The media law does not include broadcast and online media and many in the industry remain cautious. It seems the government will not easily provide broadcasting licenses to private media, but will only honor those who are allies of the government, crony tycoons or have ties to the military.
Many inside and outside Burma have dubbed Information Minister Kyaw Hsan as hawkish and a hard-liner. In a parliamentary debate last year, Kyaw Hsan said that media freedom would bring “more disadvantages than advantages.”
“Media is like red ants,” he explained, saying that the country would face instability if restrictions on the press were relaxed. But senior officials at the Ministry of Information told me during my visit that due credit should be given to the minister and the government for deciding to loosen its grip on the media. And it is true that, during this year and the last, the Burmese press under Kyaw Hsan has enjoyed more freedom.
The print media censorship board now passes many more news articles, but degrees of censorship are employed and placed on certain journals. If a journal is deemed too critical of the government or in favor of covering the opposition movement and Aung San Suu Kyi, it can face extra scrutiny. I am told that officials are increasingly worried about the ongoing coverage of Suu Kyi’s campaign trial, the 88 Generation Students and growing opposition movement in general.
In Burma, I also discovered it is possible to purchase freedom. Some media tycoons buy off censorship board officials to get articles on taboo political subjects printed, prompting international media watchdogs to unwittingly applaud publications inside Burma for daring to challenge the censorship board.
In reality, it is just a mixed bag. Some are genuinely pushing the envelope for greater freedom but others have special connections so they can publish news and articles that are forbidden in other local journals.
“We are compromised and have to practice self-censorship,” a publisher who owns several journals told me in Rangoon. Other media tycoons just know that news sells and simply practice populist journalism.
Skills and capacity are among the many problems facing the Burmese media sector now.
Critical analysis, editorials, investigative reporting, good practices of ethics and professional standard of journalism are still missing from many publications. Budget debates in Parliament, abuses in ethnic regions, thorough investigations of Burma’s special economic zones and many other worthwhile stories are still not being unearthed.
Local journals can report small-scale corruption and petty crime, but no one dares to question or write about how senior officials, ministers or generals siphon off the state budget.
We have to convince the president that a free and responsible press will help Burma and his government move forward. Self-censorship and crony journalism are treacherous in the transition period. We need more honest reporting, good interviews and high standards.
Later this month, the Burmese government is going to hold a second media conference for donors and journalists. I am hoping that more lively discussion will take place on burning issues including media law, democracy and promoting press freedom and security for reporters.
It is expected that more aid money for media development will pour into Burma. Training should benefit the trainees rather than the trainers, and many projects should be designed to empower locals, not just benefit the consultants, instructors and donors agencies. It is important in the future that experienced Burmese journalists teach the next generation.
Some government officials who are open-minded have told me that they also want to have media training. Both the private and government sector would benefit from this as well as nurturing young and talented reporters.
As Burma slowly opens up and travels through this transition period, we need more reporters, journalists and editors who are committed to protect and advance press freedom and exercise ethical standards of top-class journalism. They have the big responsibility of speaking the truth to those with power.
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of Irrawaddy magazine.