Press Freedom Is Not a Gift

By The Irrawaddy 2 May 2014

Win Tin, the late cofounder of the National League for Democracy, understood freedom. During the 19 years that he spent in prison, he was sometimes told that he would be released if he kept his views on military rule to himself. But he never accepted these offers, because he knew that there was no freedom in lies: If he denied the truth, he might as well still be behind bars.

When Win Tin died on April 21, Burma lost a great journalist. What made him great was his refusal to accept the notion that freedom (of expression or anything else) was something that the state had the power to give, as if it were a gift that could just as easily be taken away. By refusing to accept a false freedom, he remained truly free, even behind bars.

As Burma prepares to mark World Press Freedom Day on Saturday, Win Tin’s legacy serves as a timely reminder of what is wrong with the way this country’s rulers understand media freedom.

On the surface, Burma’s media landscape has seen a remarkable transformation from the days when draconian censorship was the norm. According to the Paris-based media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, the country has risen six places since last year in its World Press Freedom Index 2014. It is still in the bottom 25 percent worldwide, but that represents a significant shift from its former status as one of the world’s worst violators of press freedom.

But relative improvements aside, the reality is that the government—and the Ministry of Information (MOI) in particular—still keeps Burmese journalists on a short leash.

This is most shamefully evident in the fact that the government continues to arrest and imprison journalists for doing their job. The one-year sentence handed down in early April to DVB video reporter Zaw Pe for “interfering with the duties of a civil servant” he was trying to interview sparked outrage, prompting several newspapers to blacken their front pages in protest. This was just the latest case of using the courts to curtail media freedom, and likely won’t be the last.

Besides legal intimidation, the government has also in recent months made it more difficult for some media organizations to get visas for staff with foreign passports, including senior members of formerly exiled news groups. Like the MOI’s controls over publishing licenses, the government’s power to deny visas at will serves only to strengthen its ability to exert its influence over the media.

Clearly, despite the ostensible changes in the way the government treats the media, the underlying mindset is much the same as in the past: Journalists have been given greater “space” within which to work, but the limits of that space are still decided by the state.

As Win Tin understood better than anyone, such freedom is no freedom at all. We owe it to his memory, and to the future of press freedom in Burma, to reject the government’s “gift” of freedom, and to continue to demand it on our own terms.