Myanmar Media: Still Freer, But Far From Free
More than a year after Myanmar’s authoritarian regime began enacting broad political reforms – including easing harsh restrictions on media — early euphoria is beginning to give way to caution and skepticism.
Among the high-profile changes that have won praise from western governments was the announcement that a new media law would be drafted by a press council, made up of 28 non-government experts.
Although the law would need approval in the national parliament, allowing civilian experts to propose how they should be governed was unprecedented in Myanmar, which was ruled for decades by military dictators.. It’s one of the reforms singled out for praise by United Nations investigator Tomás Ojea Quintana, in a recent report on Myanmar that is due to be considered by the UN Human Rights Council this month.
But within days of Quintana’s report, the Burmese government released its own press law, apparently preempting the work of the press council. The February 27edition of the official newspaper, New Light of Myanmar, published the government’s draft law. It was quickly denounced by journalists in Myanmar, and by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which criticized its ban on certain reporting topics and its call for six-month prison sentences for failing to register a news publication with the government.
The government’s draft law “threatens to reverse fragile press freedom gains,” said CPJ. The government, it seems, has given the media a stern reminder that though they are freer, they are far from free.
The government’s surprise action was dismaying for a press corps that only last August was freed from a censorship regime requiring media to submit articles for government approval before publication. President Thein Sein’s end to prior censorship was among the reasons that the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which ranked Myanmar 169th out of 179 countries in its 2012 press freedom index, bumped its rating up to 151st this year.
“These reforms would not be taking place if the ruling regime was not recognizing the fact that Burma wants to enter the global community,” said Barbara Swann, a lawyer specializing in media development who recently visited Myanmar.
Last month, Swann hosted a delegation of journalists and government officials from Myanmar, who came to the U.S. to consult legal experts and policymakers about drafting a media law. But by the time the group returned to Myanmar, the government appeared to have preempted their effort, by issuing its own draft law.
Hope for a Free Media
In addition to abolishing the decades-old censorship law the government permitted exile publications to work in Myanmar, and it allowed many foreign journalists to enter the country, particularly during historic parliamentary elections last April. Mizzima, a publication that had published in exile, moved its operations to Yangon and on February 4 announced it would begin using the name ‘Myanmar’ instead of ‘Burma,’ a political move displaying acceptance of the regime.
Writing “bye bye Burma, mingalarbar (hello) Myanmar” on the front page, Mizzima announced, “we have acknowledged the advancement in this country and the process of reform has been sufficiently inspirational to bring us into the fold. We are investing in the new Myanmar, and we are changing with the times.”
A U.S. government official specializing in Myanmar said that Mizzima’s move to Yangon, as well as that of exiled magazine The Irrawaddy, was “a real vote of confidence.”
The Irrawaddy, unlike Mizzima, continues to use ‘Burma’ instead of ‘Myanmar,’ which could be considered a snub to the regime. The Irrawaddy is considered one of the most outspoken exile publications and continues much of its operations from Thailand rather than inside Myanmar.
Drafting a Press Law
One of the government’s most high profile media decisions last year was the naming of an interim press council. The council, whose term lasts one year, can mediate complaints from government or others about media coverage; about 40 complaints have been heard in the six months since the council was formed, according to council member Thiha Saw, a magazine editor and vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association, who was part of the delegation in the U.S. last month studying media law.
The council also has debated a code of ethics for journalists, which will “pave the way” for a new media law, said Dr. Kyaw Zaw Naing, a law professor and journalist in Myanmar. But the government’s sudden announcement that it had drafted a press law seemed to throw the council’s purpose into question.
According to March 4 article in The Weekly Eleven, a Myanmar newspaper, the press council called the government’s draft bill “a return to the censorship of the past.”
The government’s action is a worrisome sign for those – like Thiha Saw – who arguethe real goal should be to move toward removing all laws that restrict media.
“We do want total freedom of the press, like what you have in the States,” said Saw, in an interview during his New York visit. “Ultimately, we don’t want any law at all, but we need one (temporarily), so we want it to be the best in the region.”
Among the most important changes needed, said Saw, is an end to government licensing or registration of media. Under the ministry’s draft law, a registration regime would continue, giving government authority to “suspend our licenses, thus controlling us. This is indirect censorship,” he said. Freelance journalist Kate Hodal said the government had used its licensing authority most recently to shut down Hnyo, Myanmar’s first sex education magazine, after its editors published photos the government deemed too risqué. “Given the government can revoke your publishing license at any time,” said Hodal, “many journalists say that they now self-censor to keep themselves and their publications safe.”
Self-censorship remains a pervasive problem in Myanmar’s media, said Shawn Crispinof the CPJ. To avoid trouble, journalists shun topics like corruption, military issues, and criticism of the former regime, he said.
“Local publications have self-censored any backward looking reporting on the abuses that took place under the previous military junta,” which included the current president, said Crispin. “Burma is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most corrupt countries but there have been few if any stories digging into that corrupt past.”
”We don’t touch the cronies,” agreed Saw. “If you want a smooth, ‘velvet’ revolution, you can’t touch the cronies.”
The Irrawaddy and Mizzima may be more willing to test the waters on sensitive issues, since they maintain their prior exile bases in Thailand. For the independent local media, such as The Weekly Eleven and The Voice Weekly, it is a different story.
Last year, the Ministry of Mining filed a defamation lawsuit against The Voice Weekly after the newspaper published allegations of corruption within the ministry. The lawsuit was eventually dropped when it came to light that The Voice Weekly had obtained its evidence from public documents. But the threat of defamation suits has left journalists fearful, according to one journalist who did not have authorization to speak on the record.
Hodal, however, said there is a multitude of courageous youth eager to join the ranks of existing reporters. “There is a burgeoning sense of daredevilishness and audacity,” she said. “The younger journalists expect openness… they are aware of Burma’s place in the world and what else is happening outside their own borders.”
Despite the recent setbacks and the government’s seemingly unrelenting grip on the media, Burmese journalists will stop at nothing until they see change. Saw, speaking on behalf of the press council, said, “Our job is to push for reforms…until they reach a point of no return.”