Will the relaxation of Burma's severe censorship laws usher in the age of a responsible, responsive media -- or are Burmese journalists right to worry that the state is still watching them closely?
On November 13, 2010, Nobel Laureate and Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was freed from house arrest. A few days later a sports magazine called First Elevenran a full front-page story with three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- about a trio of English Premier League soccer matches. The journal submitted its advance copy of the page in black and white to the country's notorious censorship board for approval. It was passed.
But when the journal reached newsstands, the combined headlines -- "SUNDERLAND FREEZE CHELSEA UNITED STUNNED BY VILLA & ARSENAL ADVANCE TO GRAB THEIR HOPE" -- were splashed with an ingenious play of color variations. The parts of the text highlighted in bright red revealed a new message: "Su ... free ... unite ... & ... advance to grab the ... hope." That struck a rather different note from the coverage at the state-run newspaper New Light of Myanmar, which reported that Suu Kyi had been "pardoned" because of her good behavior during her years of house detention.
No wonder Eleven Journal quickly became the talk of the town in Rangoon. As a result, the censorship board, officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), suspended the magazine for two weeks. At least seven other news weeklies, including 7Day News,The Venus News, People's Era, and The Voice, were also suspended for a week for their coverage of Suu Kyi's release.
That was almost two years ago, and much has changed in Burma since. On August 20, the pseudo-civilian government dramatically shifted course by announcing that its 48-year-long practice of media censorship is now over. This announcement marks the culmination of a series of media reforms introduced by the new government that took power in 2011. In June 2011, the government started the first phase of reform by lifting censorship on publications involving the arts, health, technology, and sports. The second phase, which began in December 2011 , removed censorship requirements from publications related to economics, crime, and the law. The third and fourth phases, which took place in March and May of this year, rolled back restrictions on the media dealing with education and literature. And the latest reform -- the one from last month -- lifted censorship on publications dealing with politics, religion, history, calendars, and songs.
Today, if you find yourself strolling past the newsstands of Rangoon, the latest issues of the weekly journals are likely to have picture of Suu Kyi and other opposition figures splashed across their covers. Not surprisingly, Burmese readers tend to be better informed these days -- and not only about the pro-democracy forces (who once had to rely on the exile media to transmit their messages to the public), but also about once-taboo topics such as the ethnic civil wars in the country's borderlands, critical reporting 0n the Chinese government (long the Burmese regime's patron), and public protests against government policies.
For instance, the August 30 issue of 7Day News, which has one of the largest circulations among the weekly journals, bears the front-page headline: "Chinese government repatriates Kachin war refugees [back to Burma]," with a photo of the refugees. Inside, there's even more candor. Its article on the war starts off this way: "The parliamentary sessions held until now have not discussed comprehensively the wars in Kachin ethnic state, which have caused tens of thousands of refugees and cost the country massive military spending in just over a year."
The Venus News, another popular weekly, ran several striking stories in a recent issue: about child soldiers in the Burmese army, the confiscation of farming lands, and the socio-economic domination of Chinese illegal immigrants in northeastern Burma. This kind of reporting would have been unthinkable over a year ago. But now the Burmese public is enjoying unprecedented access to information for the first time in fifty years.
That doesn't mean that the specter of censorship is entirely dead. All magazine and journal publishers must continue to submit dozens of each week's copies to the censor board after they are published. Ye Htut, the director general of the Information and Public Relations Department at the Ministry of Information, told the press on August 24 that this practice is just for the sake of public records and distribution to libraries. Many local journalists doubt it. They point out that the PSRD still controls registration and annual license renewal for all publications. For now, the change is merely one from pre-censorship to post-censorship -- by monitoring what has already been published.
"The authorities continue to influence the decisions of editors and publishers by maintaining the repressive laws from the previous regime as well as by controlling the registration and license rights for publications," Zaw Thet Htwe, the spokesperson of the Committee for Freedom of the Press (CFP), told me in an interview.
Despite the announcement of the new censorship rollback, the PSRD has circulated 16 guidelines to local news journals, warning editors that, among other things, "the state shall not be negatively criticized." The bottom line is that if any publication crosses the line of these regulations, they will risk prosecution under Burma's existing laws.
However, the current constitution, drafted by the military government and approved in a flawed 2008 referendum, uses fuzzy language in describing citizen's right to freedom of expression. It states that every citizen may exercise the right "to express and publish their convictions and opinions," but only if they are "not contrary to the laws enacted for the security of the Union, the maintenance of law and order, community peace and tranquility, or public order and morality." In practice, the laws and regulations are broadly worded and open to arbitrary or selective enforcement. For instance, the most notorious and frequently used piece of censorship legislation is the Electronic Transactions Law (ETL). Under Section 33 of the law, Internet users face prison terms of seven to 15 years and possible fines for "any act detrimental to" state security, law and order, community peace and tranquility, national solidarity, the national economy, or national culture. This may include any act of "receiving or sending and distributing any information relating to" the above broadly defined proscribed areas. In August 2011, state-run media explicitly warned that the ETL could also apply to those who defame individuals and organizations on Facebook.
In the past, many journalists were charged and sentenced to lengthy prison terms under this law. (Almost all of those who were charged under this law have now been released.) According to the Information Ministry, a new media law is expected to pass later this year. But so far the authorities have not sought any input from journalists or editors.
"We welcome the news of the end of censorship," says Kyaw Min Swe, the chief editor of The Voice, which is currently dealing with a lawsuit from the Ministry of Mines for its reporting on ministerial corruption. "However, after five decades under the dictatorial regime, I've found that many journalists still don't really trust the rhetoric of reform," he told me. The Voice, which is one of the most influential journals in Burma, was suspended by the censorship board six times over the past decade, most recently in early August.
The fate of media reform has a lot to do with the overall trajectory of political transition in the country. On August 27, the President Thein Sein conducted a major reshuffle by shifting or removing nine ministers within his 29-member cabinet and adding 15 new deputy ministers. Many view this cabinet shake-up, the biggest since Thein Sein took power last year, as the president's effort to consolidate the reformists and marginalize the hardliners. Of particularly positive note is the transfer of hardline Information Minister Kyaw Hsan (once dubbed "Comical Ali" by a Thai daily newspaper in reference to a notorious Iraqi propaganda chief) to a far less important ministerial post that oversees the country's remaining cooperative enterprises. His replacement, the new information minister, Aung Kyi, once served as the government's liaison with Aung San Suu Kyi, and is known to be more moderate.
Many journalists expect that these changes at the top will make a major difference in the government's handling of media sector. "We hope this ministerial change will improve the government's attitude toward the fourth estate," says Maung Wuntha, a well-respected veteran journalist and an editor of The People's Age. "We hope they will listen to the voices of media practitioners to improve what is now the seventh version of the media law. So far, real reporters have no clue what's in it."
But others say that changes at the top aren't enough. That's because officials still have a deep-seated distrust of the media. "Bureaucratic sources are still afraid of speaking to the media," says Zaw Thet Htwe. "When we approach officials to interview them, they assume that it's an interrogation that could hurt their careers. The culture of fear remains strong in the bureaucracy. No one is willing to take responsibility and be accountable."
At the same time, the development of the local media still has a long way to go. For example, in coverage of the recent sectarian riots in western Burma, many observers note that some prominent Burmese weeklies and their widely read web postings failed to provide impartial reporting -- instead fueling racial tension by publishing highly sensationalized and opinionated articles.
"All sectors in this country, including the media, need to become more professional," says Kyaw Min Swe. "Recently we've seen some of our media outlets pursuing a propagandistic agenda and populist stance in their coverage of the communal violence in Arakan state and other news."
Many local journalists say that they want to do responsible investigative reporting, but that they don't know how to do so properly or that their editors won't provide the necessary resources to undertake such an assignment.
Hopefully, the end of decades of censorship will gradually remove all legal constraints and open up more opportunities for the growth of a responsible, professional Burmese media. Before the 1962 military coup, Burma enjoyed a vibrant free press. One can only hope that it soon will again.