Burmese media has been warned not to print inflammatory coverage of the violence in Arakan State in a briefing which made clear that government censorship remains ruthless in the military-dominated nation.
Despite an easing of regulations in the wake of reformist President Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government taking office, the Rangoon Division Chief Minister Myint Swe warned journalists on Sunday to be careful when reporting news of the Arakan unrest.
Myint Swe asked for journals not to use inflammatory language that could lead to the instability in the state, warning that transgressors will be charged with Section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act and Section 505(b) of the Burmese Penal Code—possibly facing nine years imprisonment.
“The media reported this Arakan news very quickly which could lead to instability,” Myint Swe told a press conference hosted by the Rangoon authorities at 7 pm on Sunday. “This is a very important time in Burma so when reporting the news you should be aware of your responsibilities rather than just being competitive with your rival journals.”
He added that the media is currently enflaming the conflict and, although the Constitution respects freedom of expression for journalists, writing must not jeopardize state stability, sovereignty or the rule of law.
“The information department takes care of censorship as well as if there is any violation of the laws so journals concerned will be charged,” warned Myint Swe. “This is advance notice.”
Section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act is to “affect the morality or conduct of the public or a group of people in a way that would undermine the security of the Union or the restoration of law and order,” and carries a sentence of seven years as well as an indeterminate fine.
Section 505(b) of the Burmese Penal Code it to act “with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the State or against the public tranquility,” and carries a sentence of two years imprisonment.
Deputy Director-General Tint Swe of the censorship board—officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD)—told the meeting that all news must pass his department before publication.
“News must be passed by the PSRD and published according to its permission otherwise those responsible will be charged under the 1962 act which is still in place,” he said, referring to legislation passed by former dictator Ne Win that is due to be replaced with a new media law by August.
Phay Myint, chief editor of Pyithukhit journal in Rangoon, complained that the “Arakan Press Conference” was simply an excuse to put pressure on the media and did not provide any information about the current situation. He added that the authorities were not singling out journals which had broken the rules but summoned all publications to chastise them together.
“We could not ask questions—they left straight after giving us the warning. I am very disappointed to be treated like this,” he said.
Burmese journalists said that PSRD is trying to regain control over media by pointing out the mistakes of a single publication because all news journals have been publishing stories without going through the censorship board.
“Most of the media have been maintaining their ethics but because some broke the rules the censorship board is trying to regain control over everyone,” a journalist told The Irrawaddy. “It is impossible that the censorship board will be abolished by June [to make way for a new media law].”
Distributors claim that sales of journals in Burma have risen sharply since the beginning of violence in Arakan State.
Clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in Burma’s far west left at least eight people dead and 17 wounded at the weekend. Tensions have been steadily growing since the alleged rape of an Arakanese woman by three Muslim men in late May, and the retaliatory killing of 10 Muslims on a bus last week.