The Irrawaddy

Burma—Media versus Minitrue

Journalists and writers hate censorship. Everyone despises it when their stories are censored. That’s why a tug of war between Burma’s Ministry of Information, or the censors, and media, or the censored, is becoming entrenched in the country.

Today’s Ministry of Information is remarkably similar to George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth (or Minitrue) in his dystopian novel 1984. The job of Minitrue was to change the facts of history for propaganda—the true purpose of the “Fourth Estate” is quite the opposite.

Although Burma’s media landscape has seen positive changes after Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took office last year, the mechanisms of censorship are still actively operating—the fight goes on.

And here is the latest episode in this decades-long conflict.

On May 13-14, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan held a meeting with a group of journalists, writers, publishers and distributors in Rangoon and told them the “good news”—the censorship board of his ministry was to be abolished after the formation of a new Press Council in June.

The minister also handed out proposed press regulations to be used temporarily and suggested that each professional organization send six representatives to form the Press Council.

Within a couple of days, however, three journalist groups—the Myanmar Journalists Association organizing committee, the Myanmar Journalists Network and the Myanmar Journalists Union—turned down the proposal.

This is because the proposed regulations would continue to be based upon the Printers’ and Publishers’ Registration Act drafted by late dictator Ne Win’s regime in August 1962, which turned the country’s previous good media reputation into a farce.

On May 18, Deputy Director-General Tint Swe of the censorship board—officially known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD)—summoned journalists from the same three associations and told them to forget about the proposed press regulations and to come up with their own procedures instead. The Ministry of Information seemingly took one step backwards.

Tint Swe added that journalists and writers will be able to make the new Press Council as independent as they wish. But all proposals must first be submitted to the Ministry of Information, so they are not relinquishing complete control quite yet.

And so the media tug of war goes on.

The reformist President Thein Sein mentioned forming the Press Council during a speech in March, one year after he took office. Several sources close to the President’s Office said that the he has no intention of interfering in the makeup of the body or formulating restrictive press regulations.

One informed editor who runs a successful weekly journal in Rangoon told me, “As far as I know, the president wants journalists to form the Press Council independently. But the minister and his ministry might not want to let that happen.”

Should this be the case, it looks as if the Ministry of Information is still manipulating the situation. But does that mean it is going against the will of the president?

Like Minitrue in 1984, much of what Burma’s successive Information Ministries have concerned themselves with has been scrutinizing all stories, pictures, cartoons and artwork in every publication to fit with Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism” and successive military regimes. So the question is whether this current Information Ministry intends to continue in a similar mode?

Under the 1962 Printers’ and Publishers’ Registration Act, all publications were required to register and all books and periodicals had to be submitted to the censorship board—then known as Press Scrutiny Board.

Now, 50 years later, Burma is dubbed one of the worst “enemies of press” across the world. In January, Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma 169th out of 179 countries for press freedom. It therefore seems that the mission of the Ministry of Information is not promoting the media or protecting journalists but simply controlling what is printed.

Today, many senior journalists are nostalgic about the professional freedom they enjoyed in the past.

In the 1950s when U Nu was premier, the Ministry of Information did not concern itself with censorship. U Nu’s government had a small Press Review Department but its job was to read newspapers and journals so that government ministries and departments could respond to whatever issues were being reported.

The 1950s remains the era in which Burma enjoyed one of the most liberal and vibrant media industries in Asia. The country published more than 30 independent daily newspapers including three in English and six in Chinese.

Before Burma freed itself from British colonial rule in 1948, the Ministry of Information did not really concern itself with censorship. Ba Cho, who published the popular Deedok journal, was an information minister whose main responsibility was to spread news of the government’s activities and policies. He was amongst the national martyrs assassinated together with independence hero Aung San.

Although Ba Cho did not concern himself much with censorship, the Information Ministry was one of many unnecessary legacies of European rule. The United Kingdom itself has only briefly had an information ministry twice in modern times—during both the First and Second World Wars to control the spread of sensitive information and propaganda.

Democratic countries today, such as the United States, generally do not have a Ministry of Information at all. And of those nations which do have one, only those in authoritarian countries use the body to control information.

In Iraq, executed dictator Saddam Hussein used his Ministry of Information to disseminate propaganda. Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the information minister, was called “Comical Ali” due to his outlandish claims such as American troops should surrender or face being burned in their tanks. The ministry was dissolved in 2003.

In general, these bodies are concerned with communications technology. That’s why many are termed as Ministries of Information, Communications and Technologies—self-evidently as a simple Information Ministry does not reconcile with a full-fledged democracy.

Even though Burma wants to keep a Ministry of Information at this early stage of its democratic awakening, the media does not require censorship and authoritarian control. Apart from censorship, Burma’s Ministry of Information also publishes state-run newspapers and broadcasts TV and radio.

“Government-run newspapers should not exist in a democratic country,” said Maung Wuntha, a veteran journalist in Rangoon.

“What kind of role will these state-run newspapers play if, for instance, another government is formed in the future by a different party—such as the NLD [National League for Democracy]? Will they still spread propaganda for that new government or censor that government?”

Of course, a democratic society does not need a state-run daily newspaper. It is sufficient for a government to simply have an information department with a bulletin or website like the President’s Office recently created.

The second draft of Burma’s new media law has just been completed and submitted to the Attorney General’s office for comments. And it is likely to be debated in the upcoming parliamentary sessions in July.

The Press Council and media law must serve journalists, not clamp them down on them as in the past. Officials from the Information Ministry should help form independent media associations and formulate legislation to protect journalists.

We have seen ongoing progress within the Burmese media over the course of the last year, yet censorship still exists and looks likely to continue—albeit in a new guise. Any form of censorship should not be applied in this new era, with Burma purged of both censors and the censored moving forward.