Freedom of the Press in Burma: En route to democracy?

Photo: Wikimedia commons.

After decades of an authoritarian regime dominated by military rule, Burma has seemingly begun to reopen its doors and welcome democracy. Most notably these changes have been marked by constitutional reforms, the release of political prisoners, and visits from prominent political officials for the first time in decades, such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011. However, even under a new constitution, the Burmese military is guaranteed a quarter of the seats in parliament and freedom of the press remains tied to policies from the 1960s.

One reminder of the democratic strides being made in Burma is Win Tin, the former deputy to world-renowned political activist Aung San Suu Kyi. Win Tin was jailed in solitary confinement between 1989 and 2008, where he was denied medical care, tortured through sleep deprivation, and was not even allowed pen and paper. His eagerness to further the cause of journalistic freedom was revealed when, only a year after his release, he sent an article to the Washington Post writing, “[The Burmese people] stand ready to engage, but we are more than willing to continue our struggle for the democratic values that so many have given their lives and their freedom to achieve.” Today, Win Tin continues to express these freedoms in a weekly column and radio show in Burma, where he boldly mocks the government without consequences.

Activists in the limelight, such as Suu Kyi and Tin, can escape penalty when expressing their critical opinions in the public media. Unfortunately, today there are still very few Burmese journalists who share this privilege. In August 2012, the Burmese government disbanded a law that required editors to submit stories to the Ministry of Information for pre-publication censorship. Under normal circumstances the abolishment of such policies would seem like a positive step for an emerging democracy, however, in this case the Burmese government maintains the right to censor political publications. Additionally, remaining fear from Burma’s repressive past may result in journalists self-censoring, regardless of any new laws put in place.

Win Tin gives speech to supporters at National League for Democracy (NLD) headquarter in Yangon, Myanmar on 20 November 2011. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

In response to the announcement by Burma’s Ministry of Information, David J. Kramer, the president of the independent watchdog organization Freedom House, warned, “Journalists will still have to operate within the confines of an elaborate state apparatus and abide by laws that currently negate any meaningful press freedom.” The 2004 Electronics Act and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act have been used to fine, arrest, and imprison thousands of journalists over the past decades. Under the new restrictions, editors and journalists will still remain under threat of repurcussion for content in their publications. In addition, they will be required to follow sixteen guidelines laid out by the Ministry of Information, which forbid reporting stories or issues that they classify as “harming national security” or “the dignity of the state.” Regardless, Freedom House cited the increased media coverage of news and politics as a primary component that improved the country’s 2012 civil liberties rating and “Freedom in the World” scores.

Although significant obstacles for complete freedom of the press remain, strides in the right direction are being made. In the past, private non-government media sources were only allowed to publish once a week.  However, it was recently announced that under new laws beginning this month, private media sources will be allowed to print daily. This means that the media market in Burma could potentially welcome sixteen private news journals, feeding the public’s demand for relatively uncensored news. Considering three years ago when authorities stopped the sale of a popular sports journal for secretly embedding news of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, we can consider the growth of the media market a significant success for freedom of the press and private media in Burma.

Closely associated with the concerns over freedom of the press are concerns over internet access. In recent years, when private media sources were banned from releasing daily newspapers, they would turn to social media, using Twitter and Facebook to update readers. Unfortunately, according to World Bank data, only about one percent of Burmese people have internet access. On a recent trip to Burma, Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt encouraged the expansion of telecommunication systems, telling a group of students at a Burmese technical university, “The internet, once in place, guarantees communication and that empowerment becomes the law and practice of your country.”

Only a few weeks ago, Google unlocked their New vendors ready their booths in Rangoon with passage of new government transparency laws in Burma. Photo: Richard Nyberg/ store in Burma and launched the local homepage, which is currently being tailored for Burmese content. Although the two main internet providers are fully or partially owned by the government, Google hopes to lead the country in opening up the telecom sector to private foreign investors. In addition, the Burmese government has recently opened up bidding for two telecommunications infrastructure licenses, which will significantly improve upon and expand internet and mobile phone access throughout the country, making it easier to access private media sources.

Overall, the Burmese government is slowly, but surely, removing constraints on media outlets from the military regime days, minimizing censorship and partially allowing freedom of the press. Famous political activists, such as Suu Kyi and Tin, possess nearly full journalistic freedoms, but everyday Burmese reporters still fear punishment for their reporting, surrendering themselves to self-censorship. To heal the plight of journalism in Burma, internet access must substantially improve, censorship must end, and private media outlets must have full rights to publish stories without fear of government backlash. Alongside many other issues, if we someday hope to call Burma a democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech need to be prioritized. In his last days in Burma Schmidt told students, “The internet will make it impossible to go back (to censorship),” encouraging the next generation of Burma to fight for their rights, and aiding the creation of a truer democracy in Burma.


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