Burma Still Among World’s Worst for Press Freedom

By Charlie Campbell 2 May 2012

Press freedom has improved markedly in Burma over the course of the last year although the country still remains one of the world’s worst for media censorship, according to two new reports.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) named Burma as the seventh worst country in the world for press censorship on Wednesday—after Uzbekistan, Equatorial Guinea, Iran, Syria, North Korea and Eritrea—but the military-dominated nation has climbed up from second place in 2011.

Similarly, Burma is ranked 187 out of 197 countries in the world—38 out of 40 Asian-Pacific nations—in this week’s Freedom of the Press 2012 report by Freedom House, but was still praised for tangible reforms over the course of the last year.

“Burma has moved from second on CPJ’s previous list to seventh on this analysis because it, too, released a number of imprisoned journalists and informally loosened, at least temporarily, restrictions on reporting for locals and foreigners alike,” said the CPJ report, released to mark World Press Freedom Day on Thursday.

“Burma’s military-backed government allowed foreign journalists into the country to cover a visit by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in December and a landmark by-election in April.”

However, it was not all positive reading with one Southeast Asia-based reporter for an international news outlet telling CPJ on condition of anonymity: “But between those two events, with limited exceptions, the government ignored visa requests from major international news organizations, making it impossible for them to visit the country unless they did so undercover as tourists.

“Also, visas to cover the April 1 election were valid for five days only, after which all officially approved foreign reporters had to leave en masse.”

Government attempts to use the courts to censor the Burmese media come under the spotlight when the Ministry of Construction launched a defamation action against Modern Weekly journal earlier this year after an article criticized the state of Mandalay’s roads, prompting accusations that this was a new tactic to silence dissenters.

Although this lawsuit has now been dropped, a similar one by the Ministry of Mining remains against The Voice Weekly after the journal printed allegations of graft revealed in a government audit report.

The CPJ also cited the case of a commentary by journalist Ludu Sein Win regarding proposals by Ministry of Information officials concerning the new media law which were discussed during a Rangoon conference. Ludu Sein Win wrote that those who attended the event were “helping to make the rope to hang themselves” and his article was subsequently banned, only to be later published in exile by The Irrawaddy.

The Freedom House report also documented a series of general improvements over the course of last year with Burma among three of nations with major gains—along with Libya and Tunisia—which for many years had endured media environments that were among the world’s most oppressive.

Freedom House listed eight nations as the “worst of the worst” for press freedom—Belarus, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—with Burma conspicuously absent this year.

“During 2011, significant improvements in Burma and Libya allowed them to emerge from this cohort, reducing the number of states where free media remain overwhelmingly circumscribed to its lowest point in the past five years,” said the Freedom of the Press 2012 report.

“On a positive note, the region’s second worst performer in 2010, [Burma,] experienced a significant opening in 2011. The press freedom score for Burma improved from 94 to 85 points as the regime tentatively implemented political reforms.

“Positive developments included the release of imprisoned bloggers, a softening of official censorship, fewer reports of harassment and attacks against journalists, and an increase in the number of private media outlets, which led to somewhat more diversity of content and less self-censorship. In addition, a number of exiled journalists were able to return to the country.”

Of 197 countries surveyed on a wide variety of freedom of press issues, Freedom House rated 66 nations as “free,” 72 “partly free” and 59 “not free.”

Burmese Information Minister Kyaw Hsan ensured that all media outlets in the country would soon enjoy “100 percent press freedom” but would have to abide by the law, during an exclusive interview with The Irrawaddy founder Aung Zaw in March.

“We learned about media law from different countries including Asean nations, America and India—which is a flourish democracy,” he said.

“There are many things learned from the history of our country and we can take a lot of experience from this. We have written our new law combining our experiences of the past, present events and the law of international community which is appropriate for us.”

But despite such assurances from Naypyidaw, all privately run news publications in Burma are currently subject to stifling prepublication requirements including a complete blackout on reporting of the armed conflict with ethnic Kachin rebels in the remote north, says CPJ.

Prison sentences have been used to punish reporters working for exile-run media groups, regulations imposed in 2011 banned the use of flash drives and web phones in internet cafés and local reporters with international agencies are subject to constant police surveillance, claims the New York-based committee.

However, previously banned exiled news organizations—including The Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma—are now accessible inside the country with staff members granted temporary visas to report of major events including the historic April 1 by-elections.