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Burma’s Ex-Censor-in-Chief Turns to TV

By Reform, Simon Roughneen 3 September 2013

RANGOON — In the breast pocket of Tint Swe’s green plaid shirt is a silver-colored pen. Laughing, he says the ink doesn’t run red—a reminder, he hopes, that Burma’s censorship board is a thing of the past.

Notoriously, when newspapers sent copy to be scrutinized in advance at Tint Swe’s old bailiwick at the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), the drafts would come back with red ink lining and dotting the pages, like freshly gobbed betel nut spatters on a Rangoon street.

“Now I have this assignment, I no longer have need for the red marker,” says the director-general of Myanmar Radio and Television (MRTV), Burma’s national TV and radio broadcaster, with a boyish grin breaking into a chuckle as he finishes.

Up until August last year, Tint Swe and his teams of censors vetted newspapers for anything deemed subversive—be that references to opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to even the most subtle criticism of the military regime—making accurate reporting impossible and leaving Burma close to the bottom of most of the world’s press freedom league tables. Anything deemed too edgy came back with a red line through it, often with notes on the side explaining why, or vilifying the would-be transgressor

But that’s all in the past, Tint Swe says. “The year before censorship was abolished in 2012, I stated that censorship is no longer appropriate for local conditions and is not in line with international standards.”

So he doesn’t miss the old days and his previous job? “Well, it’s natural to remember what one used to do, for many years,” he says. “But I was very pleased that censorship was finally abolished in Myanmar.”

Nowadays, incongruous as it sounds, the former censor czar is trying to transform MRTV from a propaganda organ to a public service broadcaster, a project he hopes will be done by early 2015 and in time for the national elections scheduled for that year.

A public service media bill has been submitted to Parliament, but discussion of the measure has not yet taken place As of mid-August, Burma’s Parliament had passed 68 bills since early 2011, a frantic agenda that—despite criticism in some quarters that reforms are stalling or moving too slowly—suggests that lawmakers are in some cases glossing over proposed laws, resulting in rushed or flawed legislation. An example came just three weeks ago, when MPs acknowledged to the country’s interim Press Council that a controversial publications bill—opposed by the Council—was passed by Burma’s Lower House without sufficient debate or discussion.

“The [legislative] agenda is very busy,” says Tint Swe. “But I am hopeful the public service media bill can be discussed soon, in the next session of Parliament.”

If Burma is to maintain its transition to a free press and, more broadly, a parliamentary democracy with an unshackled fourth estate, MRTV’s makeover is needed. After acknowledging that as a state broadcaster, MRTV has to date functioned as a government mouthpiece, Tint Swe adds, “We are slowly transforming to a public service media, and public service broadcasting is a noble task.”

But asked if MRTV is free to report on topics such as the war in Kachin State between the Burma Army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), or on the various recent attacks on Muslims by Buddhist mobs, the former censorship head is more circumspect.

“Concerning conflict, we have the right to cover, but we have to report according to the journalistic ethic, which means not promoting hate speech or rumor or inflammatory remarks,” he says.

The response is redolent of a proposal made in August by the Ministry of Information—of which Tint Swe’s old censorship body was once part—when Minister Aung Kyi pitched a “social responsibility” norm to Burma’s Press Council, suggesting that this would-be standard should get some fine-tuning in the coming months before being implemented as a code of practice for Burma’s media.

But there are also hopes that, just as censorship is passe in Burma nowadays, dilemmas about covering ethnic conflict in Burma will, in time, be a relic of the past. Burma’s government has long been criticized for an arrogant Burman nationalism—the sharp edge of which was dealt by the Burma Army in brutal, decades-old campaigns in ethnic minority regions—but it has now signed 14 ceasefires with ethnic militias.

That said, fighting continues in Kachin State, and the plethora of ceasefires are by no means guarantees of long-term peace. But if MRTV’s newest initiative is anything to go by, Burma’s government might be better placed to win ethnic minority trust than at any other time since the murder of independence hero Aung San, who pledged autonomy to several of Burma’s larger ethnic minorities in a 1947 agreement, shortly before his death.

“We have three new channels almost ready to air,” says Tint Swe. “A Parliament channel, a farmers channel and a national races channel.” Initially these will be available in Rangoon, Mandalay and Naypyidaw, but they will subsequently be rolled out to 21 towns and cities across Burma, where only about a quarter of the population have electricity, leaving the bulk without access to TV.

As with Aung Kyi’s “social responsibility” pitch, the term “national races” evokes a country such as Malaysia, where the appellation “race” is used in situations where most other countries would use “ethnicity” or similar.

But, says Tint Swe, there will be regional news as well as cultural, religious and social programming aired on the new channel, with filming and reporting done from Chin, Kachin, Karen, Kayah, Mon, Arakan, Shan and Wa areas by newly recruited and trained teams of journalists.

“Each group will have an hour every day, and in cases such as the Chin or the Kayin [Karen], where there is more than one local language, it will be divided into blocks,” he says.

He says each regional team will be free to find news and make programming as they see fit, within the law. “They will have editorial independence so they can air their stories, to best show off their culture and traditions. We welcome that,” he says.

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