Premature Praise for Burma’s Press Reforms

Burmese President Thein Sein made a historic visit to the White House on May 19, the latest in a series of high-level symbolic exchanges between the two nations. While Thein Sein has been regularly commended by US officials for his broad democratic reform program, President Barack Obama’s praise this week overlooked a significant backtracking on promised media-related reforms.

To be sure, Burma’s press has enjoyed significant gains under Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration. Since taking office in 2011, the Burmese leader has ordered the release of all the journalists jailed under the previous military regime, ended pre-publication censorship of the local press, and lifted blocks imposed on the Internet, including bans punishable by imprisonment for accessing foreign and exile-run news sites.

Relaxed media restrictions have ranked among the most visible and measurable of Thein Sein’s reforms. In response to Burma’s opening, the US has suspended economic sanctions, promoted private investment, and opened the way for renewed multilateral lending from financial institutions like the World Bank.

On Tuesday, US Senator Mitch McConnell, a staunch critic of Burma’s previous military regime, announced his intention to allow key sanctions legislation to lapse in response to the country’s recent democratic progress.

But as Thein Sein has won Western accolades and concessions, certain reforms of his have stalled or gone into reverse. That was seen tellingly in late February when the Ministry of Information unveiled a Draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law that aims to impose broad and vague censorship guidelines, including a ban on any media criticism of existing laws.

Shawn Crispin. (Photo: Jpaing / The Irrawaddy)

That provision underscored laggard legal reform, including over laws used in the past to suppress and imprison journalists. Violations of the proposed censorship guidelines in the new draft law would be punishable by six months in prison.

Ministry officials tried to push the bill quickly through parliament in March, but resistance from local journalists and press groups suspended those deliberations until June. If the bill is passed into law in its current form, Rangoon-based journalists believe its censorship provisions, as well as an arbitrary licensing system, will undermine the authority of a separate Press Law now being drafted by the Myanmar Press Council with an eye toward protecting, rather than eroding, press freedoms.

Ministry officials have since indicated they would make revisions to the Draft Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law, though a new version has not yet been made public.

Obviously, the US has a wider strategic agenda in engaging Burma beyond the promotion of democracy and rights. News analyses have pointed to Washington’s desire to counter-balance China’s rising influence and nip budding relations between North Korea’s and Burma’s militaries.

But if the Obama administration’s public tack is to reward reform progress with carrots, it should consider re-imposing sanctions and other punitive measures in cases of backtracking. While Thein Sein’s media-related reforms have been hopeful, there is no guarantee they will deepen or last.

Shawn W. Crispin is the Senior Southeast Asia Representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). He is based in Bangkok, where he is a reporter and editor for Asia Times Online. This article first appeared on the CPJ website.

3 Responses to Premature Praise for Burma’s Press Reforms

  1. Burma-bashing in guise of human rights violations, silenced press, rohingya oppression, and others has been so much so that that has already become cliche. it’s time for the world to recognize Burma’s road to democracy and its painful journey toward freedom. Freedom is equality for all, but it entails certain responsibility, which many developing countries lack. For instance, the laws of Bangladesh comply with the international laws, but every political party that comes to power twists the laws by the arm and make good use of the chances and the people suffer more than in a dictatorial system. Sheikh Hasina the present Prime Minister signed an agreement for a permanent peace deal with the minority party PCJSS, on behalf of the Buddhist minorities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts 16 years ago, but she has never tried to implement the clauses in the treaty, saying that there was no time frame to the implementation of the peace deal! Should justice delayed is justice denied, what can a sensible person comment on the cowardly behavior of Sheikh Hasina! So if human rights, press freedom and all other such things should take shape in the new Burma, the world at large should understand that telling Burma to do all overnight will meddle up all the good endeavors with the bad, and the Burma that the citizens and the world wanted will slump down to square one.

  2. Most of the Burmese press is still a great keyboard on which the government can play the same old sad tune.

  3. The world’s biggest dictator praised someone??

    The world community is in a dark pit dug and controlled by the biggest of big brother which is unseen by media bias/blackouts and so on.

    Look at just a tiny piece of the tiny area on a large ice barge.

    And don’t forget the millions of events and counting in which the world community has been suffering. To tell few of them..
    – hundreds of thousands of colonization
    – agent orange in Vietnam
    – millions of bombs dropped in Laos
    – greatest lie (by so-called world’s leaders graduated from so-called best universities) used to occupy Iraq
    – world wide media bias, multiple standards, discrimination, hegemony, lies, edited information & education, twisted definitions, …………
    – still counting…. and continuing…..

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