Repressive habits die hard in Burma Despite some recent improvements, Burma is still a long way from having a free media says Natasha Grzincic Following Aung San Suu Kyi’s electoral victory in April, the Australian government has rewarded Burma for its move toward democratic reform by announcing it will lift travel restrictions on Burmese leaders and other sanctions. Together with other press freedom achievements since late last year – at least 10 jailed journalists were freed, journalists have been able to set up an independent network unimpeded, and some journalists in exile were granted visas to return to their homeland – you’d think that media freedom was flourishing. But as long as the army holds ultimate power there are no guarantees that these gains won’t be reversed.
New media law doesn’t look promising The government is drafting a new media law that is meant to replace the old censorship body before the end of this year. A conference in March on the promised media reforms was attended by a host of press freedom organisations, exiled Burmese media and local journalists. But participants left the meetings ambivalent about the government’s intentions. The Committee to Protect Journalist (CPJ) voiced concern that the new media legislation will merely employ different tools of suppression, “similar to the legal restrictions on the press in neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam”. So will the new law prevent threats to the media and allow anyone to publish items on sensitive issues? That’s still anybody’s guess, as the full text of the draft law has not been made public.
The leader of Burma’s National League for Democracy, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi has complained her speeches were subject to censorship Photograph courtesy of Newspix
Laws still criminalise dissent There is still no indication that the regime intends to overturn the various repressive laws on its books. Key offenders include the Electronics Act, which allows for jail terms for anyone who sends unauthorised information over the internet. Authorities frequently have used the law to repress and imprison journalists, says CPJ. There is also Section 122 of the Penal Code of Burma 1957, which prohibits any criticism of the government or the state. The Printers and Publishers Registration Act 1962 establishes the government’s controversial censorship arm, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), and broadcasting censorship board, which approve all press, television, radio and cinema content before it can be published. Plus, there are big problems with the system in general. The judicial system does not yet act independently or protect the rule of law, and Burma has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Censorship prevails While it’s true that pre-publication censorship has been relaxed in recent months (namely around fluffier lifestyle and entertainment stories), a recent International Media Support (IMS) report found that Burma’s censorship board still orders the removal of approximately 20 to 25 per cent of articles submitted by newspapers and magazines covering current affairs. Censorship concerns were underscored when the PSRD banned a critical commentary about the March media reform conference written by veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win. The banned article was later published by The Irrawaddy, an exile-run magazine and website. Even as the conference was underway the Ministry of Mining was bringing a criminal defamation action against Kyaw Min Swe, publisher of The Voice, for reporting alleged corruption claims against it.
Election coverage was restricted The April by-elections in Burma were subject to media restrictions. Ahead of the elections, the PSRD issued a list of “Do’s and don’ts for the media covering the by-elections”, including a 83
The Annual Media Alliance summary of press freedom issues in Australia