Time for Media to Seize Freedom

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 3 August 2012

The sword of Damocles keeps hovering over publications in Burma forcing many journalists to hesitate over reporting the news.

The notorious censorship board is still chopping words, sentences and paragraphs which it judges are “inappropriate,” and even cutting the lifeline of journals by prohibiting them from printing.

On Tuesday, two widely-read weekly journals, the Voice Weekly and Envoy, were banned from publishing indefinitely because they produced several stories without the approval of the censorship board, officially named the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, the apparatus of the Information Ministry.

But this is just the latest in a series of punitive measures against several journals over past months. Rangoon-based journalists tell me that the censorship board has become more systematically draconian, especially after communal strife erupted in Arakan State in late May.

In fact, the censorship board has not only restricted this specific controversial issue, but also other seemingly benign subjects including the health of ex-generals, possible cabinet reshuffles and any news critical of MPs for the ruling military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party.

Weekly journals Venus and The Yangon Times were given harsh last warnings in early July as they published stories regarding the health of Maung Aye, the deputy head of the former junta.

Why does the censorship board still concern itself over such inconsequential issues? Many journalists doubt that Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, known to be a hardliner, and his senior officials want to take part in President Thein Sein’s reform process.

On Wednesday, one day after the censorship board banned the two journals, the Myanmar Journalists Network and Myanmar Journalists Association demanded that the censorship board withdraws its punishment.

Two statements released said that the restrictions were not in line with the current reform process. Thein Sein has already admitted that in his government there are “conservatives” who do not want to embrace democratization.

Most journalists believe that Kyaw Hsan is among these opponents to change and there have been rumors in recent weeks that he will soon be relieved of Information Ministry duties to just continue the reduced portfolio of Minister of Culture.

Most of the media is anxiously waiting for this to come true.

Press restrictions were relaxed soon after Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government took office in March 2011. Many journalists expected even more freedom as the president repeatedly promised to continue his overall reform process in every sector.

Yet the media now appears to be left behind with no clear explanation. The censorship board should have been abolished by now if Kyaw Hsan had kept his word. It was officially supposed to be closed down at the end of June, but remains very much in the thick of things today.

The former military junta was named an “enemy of the press” by international media advocacy groups. And the current government will not be deemed any better due to the continued excesses of the censorship board.

Under these oppressive restrictions on media, journalists consciously or unconsciously have to impose self-restraint when they practice their trade. In that case, words such as “independent” and “professional” become meaningless in the industry.

This became apparent during my recent trips to Burma, even though The Irrawaddy continues to base itself outside the country for these very reasons.

When I interviewed Win Tin, a veteran journalist and leading member of the National League for Democracy, at his Rangoon home for our “Face-to-Face” program, he bluntly slammed leading members of the current government as “a bunch of thieves.”

Without question, such a phrase would be removed if we had to submit the interview to the censorship board in advance.

At that time, I felt the overhanging blade which my fellow professionals working inside the country have become so used to. Such worries can evaporate the courage of journalists and their ethics.

American founding father Thomas Jefferson famously once said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” To produce that currency, Burma needs press freedom.

But journalists must fight for their own freedom to report the news as the government cannot be counted on to guarantee such basic rights. Without press freedom, their value is nullified, their integrity degraded and their role questioned.

Independent press acts as a “Fourth Estate” to facilitate the transformation of the country towards democracy. But Burmese media is still under heavy censorship and so cannot assume this scrutiny role.

Win Tin said to me during the interview at his house, “All of us, including journalists, are still in the tunnel. Journalists must break out if there is no exit.”