RANGOON—As Burma moves to reform its media sector, reporters have received mixed messages: While President Thein Sein’s government has won praise for abolishing pre-publication censorship, releasing journalists from prison and allowing private daily newspapers to publish for the first time in nearly 50 years, the Ministry of Information in March sent Parliament a controversial draft of a new press law that critics say will tighten the state’s grip on media content.
The ministry’s draft came as a surprise to many, as it was released without input from local media at a time when reporters and editors on the newly formed Press Council were collaborating with the government to write their own version of a press law which would have likely allowed for greater media freedom.
In this context, one the world’s major international media watchdogs, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), came to Rangoon in March to investigate the state of Burma’s press freedom. CPJ’s representative on Southeast Asia, Shawn Crispin, met with more than 30 journalists and editors to ask how their situation had improved and to determine areas of lingering concern. He plans to compile the information into a comprehensive report over the next couple months, but in this interview, he gives The Irrawaddy’s Kyaw Zwa Moe and Kyaw Phyo Tha an early preview of his findings.
KZM: After talking with journalists in Rangoon, can you see any concrete signs of press freedom?
SC: To my mind, this is very much a ‘freedom with limits’ situation. The government has allowed for more openness for the media. The media are able to cover political topics and they’re able to put opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi on the cover of their newspapers. … All of these were no-go areas about three or four years ago.
But to our [CPJ’s] mind, and to many of the journalists and editors I spoke with, the feeling is that the reforms are incomplete, and that more still needs to be done so journalists here can truly operate without fear of reprisal for their reporting. Some of the same laws that were used in the past to imprison and prosecute journalists are still on the books. … These [laws] are still very much—and we believe, intentionally—in place, as a way to try and force journalists to self-censor themselves. …Although they [government officials] are not applying these laws against journalists now, it doesn’t mean they won’t in the future.
KZM: What do you think of the ministry’s draft Printing and Publishing Act?
There are censorship guidelines in this [draft] law of areas that journalists could be punished for reporting, using the same vague language of the old laws. Journalists are not allowed to write against the Constitution or present news that could incite violence, and these are very vague terms that have been used and abused in an arbitrary fashion in the past. So they [the government] are attempting to retool themselves with new powers that effectively will allow them to re-impose the old regime. So it’s a mixed-message sort of situation.
Many journalists who were engaging the government in putting together a [different draft] of the new media law for the country were completely caught off guard by this draft Printers and Publishers Act; it came completely out of the blue. So to us, and to the journalists and editors I spoke with, this raises real questions about the genuineness—the sincerity—that this government has about truly reforming the media. My fear is that many government officials are not comfortable with this new era [of limited press freedom in Burma] and want to reimpose some of the controls of the past. Our concern is that this represents a backtracking from what was a pretty hopeful situation.
KPT: Compared to other Southeast Asian countries, how much press freedom does Burma [Burma] have?
SC: To my mind, and this is not necessarily from a scientific survey, Burma has moved out of the bottom league. You’re no longer with Vietnam and Laos, which are complete totalitarian regimes where the state dominates the press and there’s almost no criticism allowed. … Burma no longer has journalists in prison. There’s not total censorship of the media like in the past. But again, it’s a ‘freedom with sharp limits’ situation. So I think Burma has moved out of the bottom league but has not yet achieved even the middle ground of say a Malaysia or Singapore.
My feeling is that [Burmese] authorities are trying to get up into that Malaysia area, where there are newspapers that are nominally free but closely aligned with the ruling party. [In Malaysia], you must renew your license on an annual basis, and the minister of information has the authority to decide whether or not to renew your license in any given year. This obviously creates a culture of extreme self-censorship, knowing that if we’re too critical we could lose our license outright.
I feel that what authorities here [in Burma] have tried to embed in this draft Printers and Publishers Act is somewhat similar. … Although they’re not censoring your news beforehand, after the fact they most certainly are monitoring, taking notes and deciding who is who among journalists and what their critical views are. They’re effectively trying to create a situation where they hope journalists and newspapers will self-censor themselves for fear that they could lose their license. … This is the new order of media control.
KPT: The CPJ has been pushing the Burmese government for a long time to improve press freedom. What results have you seen?
SC: We like to think our advocacy at least played some role in the release of the journalist prisoners as well the end of the pre-publication censorship regime. We’ve been beating the drum on these issues, making a hue and a cry on these issues, for years and years. So I think yes, we did see some success, in that one of the first things they did was let the journalists out of prison and ended this pre-publication censorship regime. And hopefully, ideally, they’ll listen to our latest hue and a cry and remove these existing draconian laws that still hang over the press, and they’ll put this draft Printers and Publishers Act where it belongs, which is straight in the trash. We [CPJ] will continue to beat the drum, continue to engage, and ideally put pressure on the US to not unjustly and prematurely reward this regime for democratic reforms when 1) they’ve been incomplete and 2) most contrary to what [former] Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, they are reversible. We’ll continue to track this and put pressure on, or expose, these Western governments that are willing to look the other way when some of this very preliminary openness is taken back as they pursue their commercial interests in the country.
KZM: What would you suggest to the minister of information regarding media reform?
SC: I think there has been healthy engagement between the media and the Ministry of Information. After a couple hiccups, the creation of the Press Council—which the media has genuinely engaged, with some legendary former imprisoned journalists there to help draft a media law—represented to many what we saw as a healthy engagement.
The concern is that they [ministry officials] were not negotiating in good faith, that they presented one channel [for media reform] which everyone assumed they were following, but there was this back channel where they were developing their own printers and publishers Act. This shows a lack of sincerity in their intentions. … So the concern here is that the Ministry of Information is not negotiating these media issues in good faith, that they’re playing this same old game of open and close, the way the old military junta has exercised power for decades, and that they don’t genuinely intend to allow for real press freedom in the country, that they very much want to put forward a process that looks as if though it’s consultative with the media as a way of selling it to the international community that [Burma is] on the path to democracy, but in reality they intend upon maintaining the power.
This interview is also available in the May issue of The Irrawaddy’s print magazine.