Sitting in The Irrawaddy’s new office in downtown Rangoon as I write this, I can’t help but feel a strange sense of unreality. A year ago, I could hardly have imagined even being here, much less writing this commentary, which not so long ago would almost certainly have landed me in prison.
Until very recently, Burma’s rulers regarded The Irrawaddy and other exiled news groups as illegal organizations. We were blocked on the Internet and banned from publishing inside Burma. We weren’t just journalists—we were “enemies of the state.”
At the same time, however, we were products of Burma’s sheer lack of press freedom under decades of military rule. For almost half a century after Gen Ne Win seized power in 1962, Burma remained one of the least media-friendly countries on the planet.
Even as late as January of this year, Burma was ranked 169th out of 179 nations in terms of press freedom by the media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontieres (RSF). Until that time, providing information to exiled media groups was still a very serious crime, punishable by years in prison.
RSF’s “Freedom of the Press Worldwide” map for 2012 shows Burma in black, indicating that it is in a “very serious situation.” Other countries sharing this status are China, North Korea, Sudan, Iran, Syria and Belarus.
Over the past six months, however, things have begun to change. Former Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who was seen as a “hardliner,” was recently replaced by Aung Kyi, who many journalists believe will do a much better job of promoting press freedom. No more journalists are in prison. More foreign news agencies and exiled media groups are allowed to cover significant events, including the by-election in April and sessions of Parliament in Naypyidaw.
In August, the government announced that publications no longer have to submit articles to the draconian censorship board, officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), for approval before going to print. However, they are still required to submit copies to the PSRD after they are published, indicating that the censors are still keeping a close eye on media coverage of events in the country.
If Burma continues along the road that it is now on, it could be upgraded from black to red on the next RSF map of the world. That would put it in the same league as Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia, where the media is deemed to be in a “difficult situation.”
In other words, Burma will be a lot freer than it has been for the past two generations, but will remain far from completely free of government restrictions on the media.
Still, we must give credit where it’s due. President Thein Sein has followed through on his promises to relax media controls, and there are encouraging signs of more improvements to come. Late last month, for instance, Aung Kyi vowed at a conference organized by the Ministry of Information, the Democratic Voice of Burma and Swedish Radio to bring press freedom and public broadcasting in Burma up to international standards.
Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut, who was also present at the conference, impressed many participants with his obvious commitment to media reform. Asked if the government is ready to break with the restrictive habits of the past, he said, “The will is there. The government has decided that it is time to change.”
But some participants still questioned whether a truly independent public service media is possible in Burma, a country where the state-run media has long been notorious for its distorted coverage of events.
If the ministry is really serious about creating a free media environment, it should simply remove the restrictions that remain, including its control over all daily newspapers and TV.
Minister Aung Kyi recently said that the government may allow private daily newspapers early next year. At the same time, however, the PSRD will continue to exercise absolute control over who gets registration licenses and who doesn’t. It will also have the power to cancel licenses.
Until Burma has independent daily newspapers and privately owned radio and television stations that are no longer at the mercy of the PSRD, press reforms in the country will remain superficial at best.
Burma’s media practitioners need guarantees—not mere promises—that their rights will be respected. Until that day comes, no journalist in Burma—whether a returning exile or one who has never left the country—will ever feel completely at home here.