Media Backlash to Censorship Begins

By Hpyo Wai Tha 3 August 2012

RANGOON—While the international community praises President Thein Sein for his bold program of democratic reform, private weekly newspapers in Burma must now take greater care than ever with the stark return of censorship.

The relationship between journalists and the country’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) turned sour on Tuesday when two weekly newspapers were banned indefinitely for alleged violations of the government’s draconian code of ethics.

Thura Myo, a journalist from a local news agency, told The Irrawaddy that he felt cheated as the Ministry of Information previously said the PSRD would be abolished by the end of June with the introduction of the new media law.

“Now with no new media law in sight and the suspension of the journals, they are showing that the PSRD is still in power to threaten us,” he said.

The Voice Weekly and Envoy journals were subjected to indefinite bans earlier this week for publishing a seemingly harmless story about a cabinet reshuffle, a satirical cartoon and translated excerpts from an ill-tempered interview that MP Aung Thein Linn held with the Chinese Southern Weekend journal.

Tint Swe, the PSRD’s deputy director-general, said the journals had violated “many PSRD rules” including the publishing of news reports that had not been passed by the censorship board.

In Burma, for half-a-century, every song, printed word, film or piece of art has had to seek government permission.

However, since Thein Sein’s government took office last year, there have been some relaxations on the media submitting stories is no longer a ritual and some weeklies have been publishing without prior approval.

An editor of a Rangoon-based journal, who asked to remain anonymous, said that her editorial team uses their own judgment when deciding whether to skip the submission process.

“If a story is nothing to do with government policy, we let it go without seeking permission.” she said. “If it’s something politically sensitive, we take it to the censorship channel. We have received warnings for skipping the screening process.”

She claimed that the PSRD is biased and has no consistency in its censorship. This leaves some papers feeling “betrayed” as a sensitive story might be forbidden in one journal but can appear in another.

“In the cases of The Voice and Envoy, I think they don’t want to be left behind. They have juicy news and know it would be censored if submitted. But they know it will be on the front page of others, so they might as well just take the risk,” she added.

The suspension of the two journals caused a shockwave throughout the Burmese media industry and renewed mistrust of the Ministry of Information.

“Now we are thinking ‘who’s next’ and ‘when’s my turn?’” said Tha Lun Zaung Htet, the editor-in-chief of Venus Weekly.

Thura Myo pointed out that the Ministry of Information has taken a sudden U-turn while other departments are moving forward with Thein Sein’s reform process.

“The Ministry of Home Affairs has changed a lot,” he said. “Contrary to what they did before, police stations are now ready to take our questions. They welcome us. But the PSRD is still living on the wrong side.”

Since communal strife in Arakan State erupted last month, the Burmese press has seen a sharp decline in its nascent freedom of expression.

Snapshot news journal was suspended in June for printing the photograph of the dead Arakanese girl whose murder sparked the western Burma violence. Despite the government giving permission to resume publication late on Wednesday, the journal still needs to go to court for publishing the picture.

On Thursday, in a rare collective response which would have been unthinkable under the previous military dictatorship, 92 journalists gathered in Rangoon to form a committee in defense of the media.

This Committee for Press Freedom issued a statement urging the government to grant the two banned journals instant permission to continue publishing, protection for journalists and guaranteed freedom of expression as well as to include media representatives in drafting the new Media Law.

“The PSRD might think they can keep a tighter grip on us as there was no reaction [from us] when Snapshot was banned. Now we’ve proved them wrong,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, one of the committee members.

Tha Lun Zaung Htet said the committee is just “a common ground” for journalists to spearhead freedom of the press, and will deliver their statement to the President Office, Parliament and Ministry of Information next week.

“If our requests fall on deaf ears, we have ‘a series of action plans’ to get our demands met. At this moment, we want to keep them secret,” said the committee member.

Meanwhile, Thura Myo echoed the views of many journalists by saying he is ready to join any action the committee decides upon. “We have to defend our rights. Freedom of expression is not only for us, but for all people,” he added.