Over the last two months, the new administration in Burma has made a series of surprise announcements challenging its long record of suppressing freedom of expression.
Prisoners would be released, they said, and press freedom would be endorsed. Debates began among the Burmese in the country and those in exile about how seriously these promises of reform should be taken.
On Friday October 7, Tint Swe, Director of The Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), the state censorship board, gave a rare interview to the US-based non profit station, Radio Free Asia. His comments went viral. “Is Myanmar finally changing, or are we being fooled?” asked the Globe and Mail, “Myanmar relaxes its media grip” said the Wall Street Journal, “Is reclusive Myanmar really opening up?” Reuters probed.
Tint Swe had left little room for interpretation in his interview. His comments marked, at least verbally, a great departure from censorship.
“Press censorship is non-existent in most other countries as well as among our neighbours and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices,” he said, during the interview. “Press censorship should be abolished in the near future.”
There are no confirmed details of a draft law, yet, which will protect the freedoms he mentioned. There has however, been some action. Simply the fact that his interview was made available inside the country, was unprecedented for local media. Tint Swe’s comments continue to make headlines, triggering heated discussion amongst analysts on the 'winds' of political reform.
Winds of 'media reform' in Burma?
Stuart Deed is the business editor at the Myanmar Times, the largest private news publication in the country with a weekly circulation of 25,000. He believes Tint Swe’s statements are genuine. Censorship in the country is less pervasive than five years ago, but is still an “exasperating, painful and disheartening” barrier to work with at times, he told the Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF).
“For the best reporters, at least those who dare to report on corruption or edgy subjects, it’s very hard indeed because they would sometimes go weeks without seeing any of their work published,” “To some extent that has eased but there are still boundaries," he explained.
Since 1962, the military government imposed laws requiring every article written in the country to go through the PSRD censor board. Officials at this board then decide if the story will be published or if parts considered offensive should be removed.
Few could argue that these are events taking place are not unprecedented, in relation to the media. A detailed interview of Aung San Suu Kyi, the country's well known opposition leader, made front page news across Burma in October of this year. An interview of Aung Zaw, the editor of exiled publication Irrawaddy, including his comments on press freedom and political prisoners, was published in the Yangon-based Weekly Eleven Journal.
The government also lifted an official ban on media outlets such as the BBC and the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which had been in place for decades, last month. Although millions had managed to access these sources via proxy servers, the official removal of the ban is symbolic.
Another example of progression is the access being given to journalists.
“The decision to allow journalists to cover this latest sitting of the upper and lower houses of parliament is a fine example of a measure the new government has implemented to operate more freely,” explained Deed. Previously his newspaper would rely on information provided by The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper which is essentially a pro-government mouthpiece.
Symbolising an increased power for people to protest, and greater freedom for domestic media to cover events, the Burmese government suspended a long planned and controversial hydroelectric dam project in the face of growing public opposition at the end of September.
The public protest opposing the construction of the Myitsone dam on the Irrawaddy river was covered widely in the press. It was a project led by China and catering mostly to Chinese consumption at the expense of Burmese civilians' needs for water and electricity.
“The amount of information and criticism that papers were able to publish on that issue here was astounding,” explained Deed.
Politics of prisoner release
It was something of a novelty to see a foreign correspondent from Norwegian television presenting from the parliament in Naypyidaw. A report from October, with an interview with a high-level Burmese official implying an 'imminent' release of political prisoners, broke the news to the international community on a possible amnesty which would see a significant release within days. The amnesty only included 237 political prisoners. About 1900 still remain behind bars.
Burma does not officially recognise the existence of political prisoners, journalists included. Those released were classified as criminals freed under a presidential pardon. It is interesting, however, that the announcement of a mass prisoner release by Myanmar State Television (MRTV) coincided with a letter addressed to the President by the newly formed Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC), seeking the release of 'prisoners of conscience.' Even the use of this term in the letter is a departure from the norm.
While Amnesty International welcomed the release, its researcher on Burma, Benjamin Zawacki, warned: “Unless the figure rises substantially, it will constitute a relaxation of reform efforts rather than a bold step forward.”
The atmosphere at the exile media organisation DVB, with 25 of its own reporters behind bars, was sombre on the day of the prisoner release. Only three of their video journalists were released. The rest remain in prisons across the country for violating the draconian Electronics Act and the Emergency Provision Act. Many of them are serving heavy penalties for contributions which exposed military brutality during the Saffron Revolution of 2007.
Practice what you preach
Does the new government have a different approach than the old guard?
The answer from those polled by the DCMF is a resounding ‘yes.’ The pertinent question which remains is whether these are substantive changes or simply gestures.
“How deeply does that approach run within the government and how far does it extend beyond media reform? And is that new approach sustainable, even irreversible?,” asked Zawacki.
Deed points out that the term 'media reform' itself is contradictory. “Media reform means a busted system or there would be no need to reform it,” he said.
Other analysts in Burma who advocate collaborative efforts with the government within existing frameworks to create change have a different notion of what reform entails.
“Press freedom in Myanmar means the extent to which the private media can push the boundaries and write about things that won't necessarily please the government,” explained a Yangon based foreign analyst. Press freedoms have gradually expanded in Burma over the last two years, he said, well before the current government came into power.
An overnight transformation, they all argue, is unlikely.
Comments like those from Tint Swe are a welcome change for a country thirsty for basic freedoms, but the difficult steps are yet to be made. Statements and actions which reflect freedom of expression need to be backed up by changes in laws, for them to be repeated, accepted and practiced without fear or question.
“Media reform must manifest itself in both law and practice,” explained Zawacki. “Long term and permanent reform is therefore inextricably bound to establishing a legal precedent."