RANGOON—As a longtime reporter here in Burma’s biggest city, Aye Aye Win remembers the anxiety she and her colleagues faced during the country’s former military regime, which for nearly half a century suppressed the flow of information through strict censorship laws and long prison sentences for journalists.
“We had to fear that someone might knock on the door at night and pick us up without a warrant, that they might knock on the door and ask us questions if they weren’t happy about our stories,” said the reporter, a Rangoon-based correspondent for the Associated Press for 23 years.
Now, she says, the atmosphere is changing.
“I think the major thing is, I’m not worried about getting a knock on the door at midnight,” she told The Irrawaddy this week. “For me, this is quite a big relief.”
Since coming to power in 2011, reformist President Thein Sein and his nominally civilian government have eased press restrictions by releasing journalists from decades-long prison sentences, lifting some censorship requirements, and announcing that private daily newspapers would be allowed to start publishing in April this year after a 45-year ban.
But if the media landscape is shifting, observers say its path is far from certain.
“I have to admit that today’s media landscape has changed; the media industry is booming, plus the government says it will allow private dailies,” said Thiha Saw, editor of Myanmar Dhana business magazine and the news weekly Open News.
“But,” he added, “now is the time of self-censorship.”
A Shifting Landscape
Shortly after Thein Sein took office in March 2011, the government began easing press restrictions. In June that year, media covering certain nonpolitical topics such as entertainment, sports and health were exempted from prior censorship. This meant they no longer had to submit articles to the censorship board, known officially as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), for approval before going to print.
The government ended prior censorship for all print media in August last year, but the censorship board continues to keep an eye on local media, journalists say.
“Even though we no longer have prior censorship, we’re still supposed to submit our copies to the PSRD [after publication],” said Thiha Saw.
Reporters Without Borders, a watchdog for global press freedom, talked with local journalists about changes in press censorship during a recent visit.
The France-based watchdog, which ranked Burma as 169th of 179 countries in a press freedom index last year, had been banned from visiting the former pariah state for 25 years under the military junta, but was removed from the government’s blacklist in August.
“Reporters Without Borders was able to see the initial results of the measures designed to loosen the government’s grip on the media,” it said in a report published on Thursday. “But the way forward for the media is far from clear at this early stage of the government’s reforms.”
The report, called “Burmese Media Spring,” said the censorship board sent private media groups a list of 16 “guidelines” the same month it abolished prior censorship. These guidelines urged journalists not to say anything negative about the government or its policies.
Myo Myint Maung, the censorship board’s director, described the 16 guidelines as “just suggestions” and a sort of “code of conduct,” Reporters Without Borders quoted him as saying in the report.
But although the guidelines have no legal weight, the press watchdog added, “the government clearly thought it had found a more subtle way of maintaining pressure on the media.”
The censorship board also pressures the print media in other ways. It controls publication licenses, which means it can choose to suspend a newspaper or magazine.
“If they aren’t pleased with your paper’s content, they can revoke your license,” said Thiha Saw of Myanma Dhana magazine and Open News.
As an example, Thiha Saw pointed to Hnyo magazine, Burma’s first sex education magazine, which was banned by the censorship board earlier this month.
The censorship board’s central committee, led by Information Minister Aung Kyi, revoked the magazine’s license on Jan. 9, saying the magazine violated its license as a fashion magazine because it “published near pornography,” according to a report from the New Light of Myanmar, the government’s official newspaper.
Hnyo, the first publication in Burma to lose its license since the end of military rule, had published photos of scantily dressed women in its December issue.
The Associated Press described the magazine’s content as “tame by the standards of similar publications in the West or in neighboring Thailand,” but noted that Burma’s society is more conservative.
Oo Swe, the magazine’s 52-year-old editor, told The Irrawaddy that he had submitted an appeal to the Ministry of Information.
“They said my magazine didn’t follow one of the [censorship board’s] guidelines; they said I’m not supposed to show parts of the human body that are contrary to Burma’s culture or clothing style, or photos that show the body in an obscene posture,” he said, referring to one of the 16 guidelines sent to private media in August.
“Did they mean Burmese culture from a long time ago, or today’s culture? Culture is always changing,” he added, saying that people in Burma could easily get access to racy images on other platforms, including “on your mobile phone.”
“With press freedom, the government has loosened its grip on the media, but as everyone can see, restrictions remain,” he added. “A magazine like Hnyo’ wouldn’t be problem in a true democracy, but here it has been banned.”
‘A Guessing Game’
Because Aye Aye Win wrote for a foreign news wire, she did not have to submit her articles to Burma’s censorship board during the former regime.
But she faced other challenges, such as limited access to information from the government, which she said remains a problem today despite recent reforms.
“The hardest part is getting an official comment [from the government,” she said, saying it was often difficult to find a government spokesman who would confirm or reject reports. “We want to be balanced, we want to write the views of both sides, but most of the time the government’s side is not available, or they don’t want to comment on record, and that’s not helpful.
“Now there’s a government spokesman, but he’s a very busy man,” she added. “Wire agencies can’t wait an entire day to get a comment.”
Under Thein Sein’s administration, exile print publications including The Irrawaddy, the Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima News are also opening offices in Rangoon after operating for years from abroad.
Sein Win, the head of news and production at Mizzima’s bureau in Rangoon, was among the first to return at the end of January last year after living abroad for 13 years.
“We’ve scaled down the size of our team outside the country, we’ve drastically reduced the size,” the 41-year-old said.
About three people are currently working at Mizzima’s office in Chiang Mai, north Thailand, compared to about 20 people earlier, he said.
“This is just the beginning — it’s the beginning of the beginning,” he said. “I think both sides — the government and the opposition, including us, the exile media — don’t know what’s going to happen, and we don’t know how long this opening [in press freedom] will be extended. It’s just a guessing game. But we knew we had to grab the opportunity.”
He said Mizzima originally wanted to keep a foot in the door in Thailand in case “something high-risk were to happen, like a military coup,” but now he says he’s less concerned.
“I think I’m becoming more and more confident about this reform process,” he said. “Even though there may be some people, some military people, for example, who want to go back to the old ways, I don’t think it’s that possible, it wouldn’t be that easy.”
The main challenge, he said, was navigating the new market after operating for so long as a nonprofit publication.
“Now we have to change to a business model, and that’s a big challenge,” he said. “There are some media organizations here with huge financial capital, they have resources and they’re established, but we’re just a newcomer, so it’s a big challenge to compete in the market.
Changing the Books
Although removing prior censorship was a step in the right direction, further legal reform is necessary, press watchdogs say.
Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia spokesman for the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said a number of laws in Burma continue to give authorities discretionary powers to censor the press, including the Electronic Transactions Law and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, which both allow for the imprisonment of journalists.
The 1962 law, which requires media to register with the censorship board and submit copies of their publications, may be slated for revision, according to media reports.
The Democratic Voice of Burma reported on Wednesday that the government had promised to amend — but not abolish — the controversial law to reflect the country’s democratic reforms, though it was unclear what those amendments would entail.
“The [Printers and Publishers Registration Law] will be amended for contemporary relevance,” Ye Tint, from Burma’s Printing and Publishing Enterprise, a body in the Ministry of Information, was quoted as saying by the Democratic Voice of Burma. “In the meantime, the press council is drafting a media law.”
Press watchdogs including Reporters Without Borders hope this new media law will provide protection for local journalists.
The 30-member Press Council, which comprises mostly journalists and 10 members appointed by the government, was formed last year and is currently working on its third draft of the law, according to a high-ranking official of the council.
“As soon as we finish it [the draft], we’ll disclose it to other journalists and ask for their suggestions,” the official told The Irrawaddy, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We will make some amendments if needed and then submit it to the government.”
Crispin, who said the CPJ was looking forward to the new media law, added that Burma’s press landscape was improving compared to other countries in the region, but gradually.
“For decades, Burma was the region’s worst oppressor of the press, but that dubious distinction now likely rests with Vietnam, where at least 14 journalists and bloggers are now behind bars,” he said. “Until authorities allow private publications to publish on a daily basis and abolish all forms of censorship, Burma will remain in the region’s lower tier in terms of press freedom.”
In addition to legal changes, he called on Burma’s government to disband the country’s censorship board.
“While the move away from pre-publication censorship was a move in the right direction, we remain concerned that the censorship board was not dissolved and continues to monitor and punish news publications,” he said, referring to the ban on Hnyo’s magazine and warnings against six other publications.
“As long as the censorship board continues to wield such discretionary and unchecked powers, the risk of backsliding will remain.”