Aung Kyi, the newly appointed Burmese Minister of Information, did not mince his words when he said in an international media conference recently that Burma would adopt international standards of press freedom and public service. He also revealed that representatives from Article 19 and the BBC are assisting in this process.
But his deputy, Ye Thut, went a bit further. He proudly said that the country views a free and democratic atmosphere as crucial for developing the economy, achieving national reconciliation and integrating with the international community.
If Burma continues on this path without reversing, it will become the grouping’s game changer when the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) chair comes to Naypyidaw in 457 days. At the moment no Asean member has undergone such swift change in such a short time, especially in the media sector.
After years of being chastised as the black sheep of the Asean family since joining in 1997, now the time has come for President Thein Sein’s government to make his country a showcase for the region. Both Aung Kyi and Ye Thut want to see a freer media than those of its neighbors. Indeed, the current reform process has put more than half of Asean members to shame.
Taking into account the grotesque rights violations of the recent past, Burma, however, should be given credit for promoting democracy and press freedom simultaneously. After nearly a year of scrutiny, the Asian grouping of national human rights institutions has recently admitted Burma’s National Human Rights Commission into its fold as a member. That was a giant step for a country that only a few months ago was labeled as a pariah state.
Furthermore, Burma is about to approve a new law that will recognize the role of civil society organizations. The first draft has recently been completed and is now being vetted and amended by lawmakers and interested parties. If it is approved in the near future, Burma will join Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia as countries that recognize non-governmental organizations.
It is an open secret that most Asean members are recalcitrant when acknowledging the role of civil groups and perceive them as troublemakers or foreign agents. Ironic as it may seem, all Asean leaders agree with the idea of building a people-centered community. There are more than 300 non-state sponsored civil groups in Burma at the moment.
Of course, the most dramatic reform since Thein Sein took office last March has been in the media sector. Now all the major exiled groups including Mizzima, Democratic Voice of Burma and The Irrawaddy have a presence in Rangoon. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law was scaled back in August, journalists have been put on the defensive having to ensure their reports are accurate and fair. Otherwise, they would be sued.
Some journalists viewed such actions as a form of media intimidation. However, the government defended itself by saying that the press has to take responsibility for what is published. In the near future, both the government and journalists are hoping to see a credible self-regulatory body being set up. An interim national press council was formed recently to prepare a draft of the new media law.
Journalists have already met to exchange views among themselves to determine desirable elements in the new legislation. International and regional free media advocacy groups have poured into Burma to assist journalists increase their capacity, improve their professionalism and form organizations to protect press freedom.
Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, has cautious words on the emergence of press freedom inside Burma. While expressing appreciation of the general atmosphere, he said that lots of self-imposed censorship remains. For instance, media inside Burma never writes about the whereabouts of the elusive former junta chief Gen Than Shwe and other senior officials.
Sensitive issues such as the recent violence in Arakan (Rakhine) State and fighting between government troops and ethnic groups are reported without impartiality. Exiled media provided more balanced views of what went on inside Burma, much to the chagrin of local journalists.
Ye Thut told this author recently that Burma is learning from the mistakes of the past and wants to embrace a new future. “So we have to be true to ourselves, media freedom is the key,” he said confidently. At the moment, the Ministry of Information has been cited by local journalists and the public at large as the most reform-minded agency. Recently, thousands of individuals had their names removed from the government’s blacklist. Nevertheless, some journalists and activists are not allowed in.
One of the most ambitious media reform plans is to change the nature of state-run broadcasting service into public service broadcasting entity. Experts from the BBC have been helping the state-owned, Myanmar Radio and Television to go through this transition over the past few months. If successful, it would become a new template for other developing countries that have emerged from totalitarian systems.
Burma’s state-owned media has not gone through any comparable change since the country achieved independence in 1948. Therefore, the task of trying to alter the mindsets of these officials who used to serve as mouthpieces for the government is an enormous one. But Ye Thut said it can be done. “We are not reinventing the wheel,” he declared.
Within the Asean context, what Burma has done is considered a milestone under the Asean Charter and the Asean Political and Security Community. After the charter was approved, Asean countries have shown different levels of commitment regarding compliance with its numerous rules. However, in the past 18 months, Burma has instituted sensitive reforms, shunned by other Asean countries, swiftly and broadly.
When Burma chairs Asean after Brunei, it can give the bloc a wake-up call by choosing the promotion of freedom and widening democratic space as its theme. After all, that is what the country has been doing quite impressively so far.
This article first appeared in the Bangkok-based The Nation newspaper. Kavi Chongkittavorn is assistant group editor of Nation Media Group and his views do not necessarily reflect those of The Irrawaddy.