International media advocacy groups have warned that Burma’s reforms may be beginning to falter, with the government failing to cement recent gains in press freedom with legislation.
Restrictions on the media in Burma have been significantly relaxed since President Thein Sein’s government took power in 2011. Prior censorship of publications was dropped in 2012 and last year private daily newspapers were allowed to publish for the first time in decades.
France-based organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its annual index of press freedom around the world, published Tuesday, recognized the progress made in Burma. The country ranked 145 out of 180 nations in the 2014 index, a slight improvement from 151 out of 179 last year, and well above its position in 169th place in 2012.
However, critics say recent arrests of reporters, continuing restrictions on access to some conflict-affected parts of the country, and an intolerance of criticism in the government is undermining progress. Both RSF and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists—which issued a report on Wednesday—highlighted that legal reforms to guard press freedom were lacking.
“Are Burma’s reforms and democratization beginning to run out of steam?” asked RSF in a report released along with the new rankings. “More and more international human rights NGOs are beginning to worry, and rightly so. The widespread euphoria generated by the successive amnesties of political prisoners in October 2011 and January 2012 has evaporated.”
The report points out that Burmese government has failed to deliver media legislation in line with international standards.
“Without any consultation, the government submitted a draft media law to the Lower House of the Parliament (the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw) on 4 March  that would impose clearly unacceptable restrictions on media freedom,” the report said, referring to the Printers and Publishers Registration Bill, which, along with a press bill drafted by Burma’s interim press council, is still in Parliament.
“The printing and publications law and the latest draft of a proposed broadcast media law also reveal government ambivalence about real respect for fundamental rights.”
Despite the markedly improved media environment, recent incidents have caused concern among observers.
The government reacted angrily to reporting of allegations that dozens of Rohingya Muslims were killed last month in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State, in an alleged crackdown by security forces and Arakanese Buddhists after a policeman was abducted by villagers.
The Foreign Ministry insisted that international media and NGOs were “interfering in internal affairs” if they published information without verifying it with the government. And staff from the Associated Press were called into the Ministry of Information for a rebuke over their reporting of the allegations, made by human rights groups and later the United Nations.
Human Rights Watch in a press conference in Rangoon last week said rather than attacking media, the government should learn to tolerate the press and engage in open debate over facts.
Other incidents have led the accusation that Burma was going back to its old ways by jailing troublesome journalists. The jailing in December of an Eleven Media reporter in Karreni State for defamation, trespass and use of abusive language drew protests. Then Four journalists and two other staff at the Burmese-language Unity journal have also been detained for publishing state secrets after the newspaper reported claims last month that a military facility in Magwe Division is being used to produce chemical weapons.
In a new global report Wednesday, the CPJ listed a number of concerns about press freedom in Burma, and also noted that laws restricting media were being put forward or remained in place.
“Journalists reporting in Burma continued to face threats and obstacles despite widespread hope for a freer media environment with the transition from military to quasi-civilian rule,” the report said. “While existing restrictive laws perpetuated self-censorship, a new printing and publishing bill aimed to re-impose broad censorship guidelines and grant a newly created registrar sweeping powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses.”