Arakan Violence Blamed as Press Council Put on Hold

By Nyein Nyein 5 July 2012

Plans to form a new Press Council to replace Burma’s draconian censorship board appear to have been put on the back burner as the country faces its worst communal violence in decades, according to journalists.

A month after clashes between Muslims and Buddhists broke out in Arakan State, the government has fallen silent on the proposed Press Council, which many expected to be unveiled by now after months of discussions about how it should function. Journalists who took part in those discussions say they were told by the Ministry of Information that there would be “no more censorship in July.”

Since then, however, Burma’s censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), has tightened restrictions on the media in an effort to control coverage of the still unstable situation in Arakan State.

Snapshot, a weekly journal that published a photo of a Buddhist Arakanese woman who was allegedly raped and murdered by three Muslim men in late May, was ordered to suspend publication.

Myint Swe, the chief minister of Rangoon Division, also warned journalists in Rangoon to be careful  about how they cover the Arakan violence, which broke out after the murder-rape in May sparked a cycle of reprisals, including the lynching of 10 Muslims on June 3. So far, the death toll is estimated at around 80, with tens of thousands more displaced after mobs torched more than 3,500 homes.

No one has yet declared media reforms the latest casualty of the clashes, but journalists and publishers say they are frustrated by the the slow pace of moves to lift censorship after decades of tight control, and many blame the delay on the situation in Arakan State.

“I think it is the communal violence in Arakan state that has caused the delay,” said Ko Ko, the CEO of the Yangon Media Group and secretary of the Myanmar Journalists Association’s organizing committee.

International media watchdog groups have also noted the Burmese government’s reflexive use of media controls in a time of crisis, and urged it continue with reforms rather than using the need to maintain stability as a pretext for restricting media freedom.

“The ongoing conflict in Arakan has shone a harsh light on the sensitivity of the media environment and the very fragile nature of the newly recovered but partial media freedom,” Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said in a press release on June 28.

“We hope that both the Burmese government and Parliament will understand that modernization and liberalization of the media and adoption of adequate media legislation are not going to be the result of the country’s democratization but are inescapable preconditions for its democratization, ones that must be tackled right away,” the group added.

Journalists in Rangoon and Mandalay, who complain that they are still required to submit articles to the PSRD, agree that press freedom can’t come soon enough to Burma, a country that has long suffered under some of the world’s worst media suppression.

“We can only enjoy media freedom when we can freely write stories without being censored as in the past,” said Thiha Saw, the editor of the Myanma Dana economic magazine and Open News Journal.

However, many still expect the government to follow through on its promises of liberalizing the media landscape.

“I don’t think it will take too long to create the new Press Council, since we were previously told that it would be formed in July,” said Ko Ko.

He added, however, that the Information Ministry has yet to respond to press regulation proposals submitted by journalists associations.

Many journalists were at first reluctant to participate in the formation of the Press Council because  regulations governing its operations that were originally proposed by the government appeared aimed at controlling the media in accordance with the 1962 Printer and Publisher Registration Act.

In June and December of last year, seven types of journals, including those dealing with health, sports, technology, art, children’s literature, crime and the economy, were given permission to publish without going through the PSRD.

There are more than 170 weekly journals and 180 magazines published in Burma.