It’s been an incongruous start to the year for freedom of expression in Burma. With one hand, the government has continued to strip away the layers of arbitrary regulation used to muffle dissent for nearly five decades.
The New Year kicked off with a government commitment to allow daily newspapers by April – a move which has been cautiously welcomed by most of Burma’s journalists. A new media law is being drafted, while the government abolished a draconian law used to censor speeches. It even announced that journalists would be able to apply for one-year visas to work in the country – a significant step up from the six-day visas previously issued.
But domestic journalists would be forgiven for not leaping to their laptops. Editors, who have begun to tamper with the government’s editorial boundaries, have swiftly learned which lines are not to be crossed. The country’s first sex education magazine – a mildly risqué teen glossy that matched bare legs with seductive smiles – was branded “near pornography” by a government minister and swiftly pulled from the shelves. Six other magazines were warned that they were being monitored, even though Burma’s notorious censorship board was formally dissolved in January.
More worrying news emerged this week. After pledging to abolish the draconian 1962 printing and publishing law, which required publications to submit to monitoring by the government, the Ministry of Information is pushing through new legislation with eerily similar provisions. The new law governs the publishing and printing regulations necessary for a publication to operate in Burma, and will supersede any new freedoms furnished by the new media law, currently being drafted by Burma’s quasi-independent interim press council.
Presented to parliament this week, the draft legislation prohibits publishing on numerous topics, including those deemed to “violate” Burma’s controversial 2008 constitution and “inflict damage” between ethnic groups. It also appoints a registration officially formally tasked with monitoring whether publications violate these rules.
In a candid interview with DVB this week, a government spokesperson admitted that a new “supervisory committee” was formed to replace Burma’s notorious censorship board on the very same day it was supposedly abolished. It will carry out many of the same functions; including monitoring media output and retracting the licences of anyone deemed to violate their terms. The committee itself consists of senior government officials, including military intelligence, and was subversively introduced without parliamentary oversight or media knowledge.
On Saturday, it emerged that only eight out 14 scrutinised applicants were issued a daily publishing licence – and those rejected included the Eleven Media Group, which has led a vocal campaign against recent government attempts to resurrect censorship. And the reason? They lacked a revenue stamp worth less than US$0.11.
But in a commentary published Friday, state media rebuffed criticisms of the new law as “one-sided” and “colourful responses”, before drawing comparisons to printing regulations in India, Cambodia, Malaysia and Vietnam – all of whom rank in the “red zone” of Reporters Without Borders’ press freedom index. To the author’s credit, he did recognise that his comments were issued to the best capacity of his “grey matter”.
Of course, the vigilance of Burma’s censors should hardly come as a surprise. When the government formally ended pre-censorship in August last year, editors were cautioned to avoid politically charged content or overt criticisms of the state. Although the government later claimed these were “merely suggestions” it is obvious that Burma’s decades-old monitoring machinery has struggled to tuck away its corrective red pen.
Indeed it is not only the government, which has acted with militancy to preserve its reputation in the face of growing media freedom. Since January, parliament has stepped up a campaign to identify a controversial blogger known only as Dr Seik Phwa – a fictional mad scientist in Burmese literature – who criticised the legislature for seeking greater influence over the judiciary.
Described as a “slap to the face” of parliamentarians, Dr Soe Yin accused the blogger of defaming the institution and has led a series of meetings to identify the mystery writer, whose last blog post was issued on 20 January. Accused by some to be an informant for the ministry of information, he usually sings praises to the president and criticises Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).
Even Eleven Media weighed in on the debate, but this time not in defence of free speech, but rather to accuse Dr Seik Phwa of being a “serial slanderer” with government ties. This is the same publication that defended Snapshot news journal for publishing an inflammatory image of the body of Thida Htwe – whose rape and murder last year sparked Burma’s worst ethno-religious clashes in decades – and its own freedom to promote discriminatory and misleading reporting on the Arakan crisis.
Insiders have speculated that Dr Seik Phwa’s identity is already known, but that Dr Soe Yin is sending a message to his political opponents within the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). Fissures between Thein Sein and the lower house speaker, Shwe Mann, are already well publicised, and no doubt internal disputes will continue to multiply as the pseudo-democratic party stumbles further into the parliamentary process.
Conversely many government officials have also been harnessing the leverage of Burma’s expanding media landscape. Reports suggest that government bodies, including the Ministry of Information, have received extensive media training to deal with awkward questions from intrusive foreign journalists. In a historic interview with DVB last week, Thein Sein treaded the standard non-committal government line on issues ranging from constitutional change to ongoing ethnic conflicts.
The president’s office spokesperson Zaw Htay, who uses the pseudonym Hmuu Zaw, also regularly plugs government messages through his Facebook page, and has even set up an English-language Twitter account to target an international audience. Ironically, the Twittersphere has thrown a spotlight on some of the inconsistencies in the government’s politics.
A self-proclaimed Rohingya USDP MP, Shwe Maung, who represents Buthidaung constituency in Maungdaw township in northern Arakan state, recently prodded the new government’s tolerance for free speech. In a series of vocal tweets and media interviews, the controversial USDP representative has led an active campaign to promote the rights of the reviled Muslim Rohingya minority, escalating in a very public war of words with military hard man Zaw Htay.
Nor has the once-iconic NLD fared much better. Since sweeping a historic victory in the April 2012 by-elections, the pro-democracy party has struggled to find its feet along Burma’s bumpy road to transparency. Suu Kyi, who once professed plans to join Twitter, has become increasingly tight-lipped as the controversies and criticisms against her party have begun to mount.
In the run-up to her party’s first formal congress – which has courted controversy for months — inside sources suggest that members had been explicitly instructed not to speak with the media. It follows reports that many of Suu Kyi’s closest allies, who have themselves faced allegations of cronyism, have shuttered her away from many grassroots voices.
One of four MPs, who were curiously banned from attending this week’s event, accused the party of hypocrisy. “The NLD, being a party promoting transparency, needs to be transparent themselves,” Thant Zin said on Thursday. Now the NLD is even due to join the UDSP in publishing its own daily “public” newspaper, of which Suu Kyi will be the patron.
Developing a media environment that is both free and responsible is a difficult task for any country, let alone one emerging from five decades of military oppression. But as Burma takes tentative steps towards democracy and the government, the leading opposition party – and indeed many newspapers – appear to be driving an increasingly discordant and partisan agenda, there are ample reasons to worry.
No doubt, the government’s new printing law partly hopes to assuage some of the damage inflicted by last year’s media coverage of the sectarian violence in Arakan state. While that may be one honourable motive – it is hardly sufficient to justify a sweeping set of government powers that can be used to target journalists, dissidents and other ethnic minorities with impunity.
As long as there are laws in place, which those with power can abuse, it is difficult to envision a smooth democratic transition for Burma’s budding media.