Media Freedom Group Slams Govt, Distributor For Time Magazine Ban

By Paul Vrieze 27 June 2013

RANGOON — Reporters Without Borders has denounced the Burmese government’s decision to ban the July 1st issue of Time magazine Asia due to controversy over its cover. It also condemned Inwa Publications’ decision to voluntarily scrap the distribution of the issue in Burma.

The France-based media freedom group said on Wednesday that it was “extremely disturbed” by the ban and it called on the government to rescind its decision.

“At a time when Burma’s media law is still being drafted, it reflects an attitude that is completely contrary to the fundamental principles that should govern media law reform,” the group said in a statement.

The cover of Time’s July 1 issue features a photo of radical monk U Wirathu with the headline “The Face of Buddhist Terror.” The cover story describes the rise of aggressive, nationalist teachings among Buddhist monks in Burma and other parts of Asia, and their role in instigating unrest between groups of different faiths.

In Burma, the radical monks have been accused of stirring up anti-Muslim sentiment that led to bloody inter-communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims in the past year.

Time’s July 1 cover offended many in Burma because they feel it couples the country’s Buddhist tradition and its revered monks with terror.

On Tuesday, Inwa Publications, the sole distributor of Time magazine in Burma, decided to cancel sales of approximately 600 copies of Time’s July issue because it offended their Buddhist faith. The firm said it was also scrutinizing the content of the publications it distributes, because the government censor had stopped controlling media content last year.

Reporters Without Borders slammed the firm’s decision.

“Inwa Publications went far beyond its role as a distributor and abusively assumed politically-motivated censorship powers, going so far as to argue that this was justified by the recent closure of the government office for prior censorship,” the group said.

“As Time magazine’s sole distributor in Burma, this privately-owned company is violating media freedom and the Burmese public’s right to information.”

On Wednesday, President Thein Sein’s office announced a ban on sales, reproduction, distribution or possession of the July issue, claiming the English-language article could lead to “misunderstandings” and “jeopardize” Burma’s communal harmony. A day earlier, it had issued a statement defending Burma’s “noble” Buddhist tradition from any association with violence.

Reporters Without Borders said the decision shows that little progress has made in improving media freedom in Burma under President Thein Sein’s reformist government.

“There has been no change in the government’s desire to control news and information and to assume the right to apply prior censorship whenever it deems this to be necessary,” the group said. “This is an unacceptable step backwards for media freedom in Burma.”

Since assuming office 2011, Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government has lifted some of the draconian media restrictions that were enforced under the previous military regime. It disbanded the government censorship board last year, released jailed journalists and on April 1 the publication of daily newspapers was allowed for the first time in decades.

A new media law is due to be discussed in Parliament in the coming months and is being closely watched by Burmese media organizations.