Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Question of Press Freedom in Burma

Aung Zaw, editor of the Chiang Mai-based Irrawaddy, recently returned to his home country after 25 years of exile following his flight to escape arrest. This assessment of Burma’s press freedom first appeared in Irrawaddy.

Since coming into 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.

Thein Sein is known to be a bookworm who follows the news closely. Immediately after his speech in Parliament last week to mark the one-year anniversary of taking power, aides and senior officials at his office phoned several editors to ask their opinion.

During my recent trip to Burma, I was told that the president is keen to see press freedom blossom. I still have some reservations, however.

What I gather is that he has also 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. Re-creating this council will stir things up among renowned tycoons due to personal jealousy, rivalry and self-centered 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 the Ministry of Information.

There is a deep suspicion that the pair do not see eye-to-eye in developing media in Burma, let alone allowing editors to have increased authority or even the final say. Sadly, 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.

However, officials recently said that censorship would be abolished when the new media law is introduced this year. Exciting indeed, but this remark does not really change skeptics into enlightened believers.

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 arrest and detain anyone, including journalists, without due process.

In terms of press freedom, Burma is still ranked 169 out of 179 countries, according to an index by Reporters Without Borders published 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. It seemed these officials have been working away in a closet!

At a media conference—the first in many years—held in Rangoon in January, Burma's censorship chief Tint Swe, head of the Department for Press Scrutiny and Registration, said that the drafted media law “will be submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for comments, then to the cabinet for approval and then to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw [combined Houses of Parliament] for approval.”

He added during his presentation that the new legislation will be entitled the “Printing Press and Publication Law,” with 10 chapters including “Rights, Duties and Ethical Codes for Writers and Journalists” and “Penalties.” To the astonishment of many participants, he only presented the Table of Contents of the draft but no details of the law itself.

The current censorship board will be dissolved under the new media law with a replacement “Committee for Press Freedom and Raising Ethical Standards” taking its place.

“Successful media strategies are increasingly dependent on the management of [this new media] policy,” Tint Swe told the workshop.

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 security for journalists.

Hein Latt, the editor of Popular News Journal and a central committee member of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association, told The Irrawaddy after attending the media conference: “I think the media law here will be more like in Singapore, Malaysia and Vietnam. If so, press freedom would not change much although it may relax somewhat. We cannot expect much.

And we still cannot act like India’s media.”

Respected Burmese journalist Ludu Sein Win wrote a recent article—which the censorship board refused to publish inside Burma—which blasted those who attended the media conference for “helping to make the rope to hang themselves.” This article is now published in The Irrawaddy Burmese language online site here. 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 remained cautious. It seems Naypyidaw 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.

Family members of retired senior generals have shown a keen interest in applying for broadcasting licenses. I am sure nepotism seems to Naypyidaw as the safest way to honor broadcasting licenses rather than independent-minded broadcast journalists.

Who Controls the Press in Burma?

Many inside and outside Burma have dubbed Information Minister Kyaw Hsan as hawkish and a hardliner.

In a parliamentary debate last year, Kyaw Hsan said that media freedom would bring “more disadvantages than advantages,” before he went on to astonish MPs with a half-hour recital from the Buddhist tales of the Jataka.

“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.

Again, many editors I met remain insecure and feel uncertain. “The minister is too cautious to give us freedom… it is still a hopeless situation,” one renowned editor who is close to the minister and asked to remain anonymous told me during my visit.

Freedom may not be permanent, but I observed myself, and many in the media sector agree, that they currently enjoy greater liberty and a longer leash.

The print media censorship board now passes many more news articles, but degrees of censorship are employed and placed on certain journals. For instance, 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 continuous 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 certain freedoms. Ironically, some media tycoons buy off censorship board officials to get more 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 (and punished at some point) but others have special connections so they can publish news and articles that are forbidden in other local journals.

Some editors confided that they feel deeply embedded and too close to the government so they can no longer write anything that is important to readers.

“We are compromised and have to practice self-censorship,” one renowned publisher who owns several journals told me in Rangoon. Other media tycoons just know that news sells and simply practice populist journalism.

One thing for sure is that restrictions on the media in Burma have been loosened, but censorship and control mechanism remain intact. I suspect this will continue to maintain its presence in a different form, so editors and journalists in Burma face many unanswered questions.

To me—aside from the cronies, tycoons and censorship board—skills and capacity are one of many problems facing the Burmese media sector.

Although there is space to publish news and articles that would not be permitted by the more repressive regime of the past, critical analysis, editorials, investigative reporting, good practices of ethics and professional standard of journalism are still missing from many publications.

The space is not being fully exploited due to a lack of professionalism in reporting and writing, as well as rivalry and vested interest between some powerful media groups.

For instance, 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 corruption at a small scale level and petty crime, but no one dares to question or write about how senior officials, ministers or generals siphon off the state budget.

If the press is really free, I am sure we can have more lively and colorful stories of past and present. We have to convince the president that a free and responsible press will definitely help Burma and his government to move forward.

It is not just that the censorship board is actively exercising its policies through stories, the problem also lies in the skills of reporters and editors. Some media tycoons will bury great stories as they do not want to upset business partners or allies in the government.

Self-censorship and crony journalism are treacherous in the transition period in Burma—we need more honest reporting, good interviews and a premium standard of media in the country.

In late March, 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. This will make our media development more sustained and stronger.

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.

(Reprinted with permission from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement)

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