For the 48 years leading up to August 20 of this year, reporters in Burma were required to submit their articles to state censors before publication, who would hand them back covered in red ink, keeping a tight grip on information that reached public attention. Now, not only has the government abolished this practice, but Burma could be preparing to allow private daily newspapers to emerge in coming months, said Ye Htut, the country’s Deputy Information Minister, on Monday.
“Our minister would like to see private dailies early next year,” Htut told Reuters, referring to the new Information Minister U Aung Kyi, who replaced a “hardliner” in a cabinet reshuffle last month. Currently, there are privately owned weekly journals and monthly magazines operating in Burma, but the four daily newspapers are all state-run.
Aung Kyi, whom Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper has referred to as a “reputed liberal,” apparently plans to introduce a new “Media Law” that all parties would accpet as well as a Press Council, both of which Htut has called “prerequisites” for the emergence of private dailies.
However, sizeable obstacles remain between the country also referred to as Myanmar— the military junta changed the country's name to Myanmar and re-baptized the capital Rangoon as Yangon in 1989, but several countries including the U.K. and the U.S. refuse to accept the unelected regime’s name-changing power— and a truly independent press.
Private Burmese publishing house Elven Media’s Managing Editor Thein Myint said that the continued requirement for publishers to possess licenses remains a problem. “We do welcome the remarks by the new minister, but we think there should not be any license for dailies. It should be free registration. Nobody should be granted special privileges,” he said, according Reuters. “The competition among the dailies should be completely free and fair.”
Following the August 20 announcement ending direct pre-publication censorship, Wai Phyo, the Weekely Eleven journal’s editor, expressed a similarly cautious outlook. He called the move “a big improvement on the past,” but said that the pressure on editors to make sure their publications remained within the bounds of the law would heighten, reported the BBC.
A journalist whose work enrages or offends the government can still be punished under current laws, according to Tin Htar Shwe, who heads the BBC’s Burmese Service. For example, under the Electronic Transactions Law, those who send messages deemed to be “detrimental to the interest or that lowers the dignity of any organization or person” can be sent to prison, reported the Globe and Mail.
The expectation that the still-extant Board of Censorship will continue to scrutinize journalists’ output post-publication could still lead to self-censorship, particularly in reporting on subjects that are considered sensitive, such as corruption and allegations of abuse of power by army officers.
In November 2010, opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was freed after 15 years of house arrest, and a “quasi-civilian” government, led by President Thein Sein and largely made up of former military officers, took office in March 2011, after nearly half a century of tyrannical army rule.
In the months that have followed, the former British colony bordered by India, China, Laos and Thailand has taken its most significant steps toward democracy in four decades. The new government has allowed opposition members to run for parliament, released activists, artists and monks, and gradually relaxed control over the media.
Last June, the Ministry of Information granted permission to around half of Myamnar’s privately owned weekly and monthly publications to go to press without first submitting proofs to the Board of Censorship. Restrictions have been lifted on some 300 newspapers and magazines “covering less sensitive issues” such as sport and health, as well as 30,000 websites, reported the BBC, meaning that people with internet connections are receiving unobstructed access to political information for the first time.
Of the four government-run daily newspapers in Burma, three are run by the Ministry of Information, and the fourth by the Ministry of Defence, and all allegedly “carry much the same propaganda-laced content.”
In October, the head of the Press Security and Registration Department said “censorship was incompatible with democratic processes,” but also warned that publications were expected to “accept the responsibilities that go with press freedom,” according to the BBC.
Images courtesy of preetamarai and onourownpath via Flickr Creative Commons