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.
Posted By Min Zin Friday, September 7, 2012 - 9:26 AM
In 2009, Moe Thee Zun, a famous student leader during Burma's 1988 pro-democracy movement and a former chairman of the All Burma Students' Democratic Front, flung his shoe at a car carrying then-prime minister Thein Sein while he was attending the UN General Assembly in New York. He argued that Thein Sein and the repressive military junta ruling Burma do not represent the people of Burma -- whom they brutally killed during the peaceful protests of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Now Moe Thee Zun is back in Burma after 24 years in exile. The student leader, who was condemned to death in absentia by the old military regime, can now legally return to his homeland -- now that-President Thein Sein's pseudo-civilian government has removed his name, along with 2,081 others, from a blacklist denying him entry into the country. After his arrival on Saturday he held a press conference at which he declared that he had returned to help the president's reform process and make peace in the war-torn areas of the country.
Moe Thee Zun is not the only one. A whole host of prominent exiled political activists are making their way back this week. A group including two high-profile activists -- Naing Aung, the former chairman of one of the biggest student organizations formed in the wake of the 1988 crackdown, and Thaung Htun, the foreign policy czar of the exile movement -- arrived in Burma a day earlier than Moe Thee Zun. (Naing Aung is surrounded by journalists as he lands at the Yangon internaitonal airport in the image above.) This group was followed by the arrival of Aung Moe Zaw, the leader of a Burmese political party in exile. The latest returnee is Maung Maung, a well-connected figure in Burma's powerful exile trade union that managed to bring the issue of forced labor to the International Labor Organization, which then imposed sanctions on Burma. All of these returnees, who were once condemned enemies of the state, have now vowed to assist with Thein Sein's reforms and contribute their experiences, expertise, and resourcefulness. The president is likely to receive all of them.
Like all the other intriguing shifts in Burma's recent political reform, this turn of events is dazzling -- and also somewhat bewildering.
First, these latest returns are important because all the figures involved are heavyweight politicians. Since Thein Sein came into office after the 2010 general elections, a considerable number of exiled elites have returned home. But they are mostly technocrats and journalists. In general, bringing politicians back home is riskier for the government. Politicians, after all, ultimately seek power, and they have the capacity to mobilize the public. Although some of these latest returnees have controversial political pasts, such as their alleged involvement in killing fellow students in the jungle where they were based as they fought alongside ethnic rebels against the former junta, their strength when it comes to political networking and raising resources is not to be underestimated.
The second puzzling issue is why the government has risked their return. Apparently, the government does not need the support of the exile community to de-escalate conflict between the authorities and the opposition. Such conflicts have been mitigated by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's entry into the military-dominated parliament and the release of hundreds of political prisoners such as prominent 88 Generation student leaders like Min Ko Naing. If you sincerely believe that politics in Burma should be a matter of everyone, including Aung San Suu Kyi, working happily together under the president's enlightened leadership to transform the country for the better, then the happy ending has, arguably, already arrived.
If you have a more cutthroat view of politics, however, it's probably worth considering every possible scenario. The government is likely to seek the assistance of the returnees to build bridges to the leaders of the ethnic armies, because these exile activists have developed long-standing ties with the leaders of the ethnic groups -- not only in the jungle, but also on their visits to western capitals. President Thein Sein can also use the returnees to lobby the West, especially the U.S. He needs help not only in overcoming the remaining sanctions, but also to get aid for development and post-conflict rehabilitation.
The hidden gains, however, might be even more favorable for the government. Bringing these prominent exiles back and giving them political space inside the country promotes the impression that Aung San Suu Kyi is not the sole representative of the opposition movement. The president has worked hard to bring all forces together by meeting with leaders of legal political parties, ethnic minority politicians, and now the exiles, as well as Suu Kyi and the leaders of the ethnic military groups. Not so long ago, international and domestic voices were demanding that the way to solve Burma's crisis was by holding a tripartite dialogue between the military, Aung San Suu Kyi (standing for the pro-democracy opposition), and the ethnic minorities. All three forces are equally important players. But now the scene has changed. The military-backed president has emerged as the patron who reigns above them all as he guides diverse forces to their assigned roles in the state-led transition. This perception and policy shift is a huge victory for the Burmese military. Of course, whether this state-led corporatist political arrangement will resolve the country's deep-seated problems is highly debatable.
Like so many exiles in other countries in the past, these Burmese groups are not united. These latest returnees appear to be doing little to coordinate their efforts with one another, much less with the key domestic players like Aung San Suu Kyi and the 88 Generation group. If the government encourages the opposition returnees to run in the 2015 general election, it will likely undermine, or at least complicate, Suu Kyi's campaign for leadership. This scenario would serve the interests of the military-backed party, which overwhelmingly lost to Aung San Suu Kyi's party in the by-elections this past spring.
But perhaps I am splitting hairs. As the late Edward Said once observed, exile is "the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place." It is always commendable to enable an alienated human soul to re-attach to its roots. For this reason alone, President Thein Sein deserves major kudos.