Burma’s government has announced plans to allow foreign journalists to stay in the country for up to a year, ending the current maximum of one month, according to a report by the British newspaper The Guardian.
The move, which will greatly ease efforts by international media to cover developments in Burma, was welcomed as a further sign of the country’s opening, but was also met with a note of skepticism from some who say it will give the government greater control over foreign reporting on Burma.
“Any new measure that the government uses to effectively pick and choose which foreign journalists it allows into the country would hardly be a step ahead for press freedom,” said Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.
Noting that “certain foreign journalists who were allowed into Burma and reported critically in 2012 are now seeing long delays or non-response from relevant authorities when applying for follow-up visas this year,” Crispin said the new scheme is also open to abuse as a means of manipulating the media.
He added that the government seems particularly concerned about reporting on the conflict in country’s north, where the Burmese army has come under international criticism for its offensive against Kachin rebels.
Ye Htut, Burma’s deputy minister of information and chief spokesperson for the President’s Office, told The Guardian that the new plan will be implemented around the middle of April. Under the new rules, he said, reporters can apply for journalist visas and will have easier access to government officials for media interviews.
Applicants will be required to submit a CV and recommendation letter from their respective media agencies, and once approved will receive press cards and visas for the period of time they intend to work in the country, said Ye Htut.
Journalists who travel in and out of Burma could be given multiple-entry visas of between three and six months. Visas valid for up to one year will be granted to those who intend to set up a foreign news bureau, according to the minister.
Under Burma’s former military junta, journalists and photographers often entered the country on tourist or business visas because journalist visas were rarely granted. Even under the current quasi-civilian government, most journalists are only allowed to stay for one or two weeks.
The news of the new rules comes just days after reports that Google had warned several Burmese journalists and others covering the country that their accounts had been targets of “state-sponsored” hacking attempts.
More than a dozen journalists working for local and foreign news agencies, including The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Kyodo News, had received the warnings. Several reporters contacted by The Irrawaddy said they had changed their Gmail passwords, backed up data on their hard drives and started using the Google Authenticator mechanism for better security.
Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based journalist who has written several books on Burma, said that his personal computer started behaving erratically after he received the warning last weekend.
Asked what he thought of the attacks, Lintner said that the Burmese authorities are easing direct censorship and adopting more sophisticated methods, such as hacking and checking people’s email.
According to an Associated Press report on Tuesday, Ye Htut rejected suggestions that the government was behind the attempts to hack journalists’ email accounts.
“There is no state-sponsored attack on individual accounts,” he said. “That’s not a policy of our government.”