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Burmese authorities have introduced new visa regulations for foreign correspondents as of early February, limiting foreign journalists to one month visas, instead of the previous three month stay.
Ye Htut, Deputy-Information Minister and government spokesperson, said foreign journalists were previously allowed a longer stay because of the SEA Games, a regional sporting event held in Burma last December. The government no longer sees the extended stay as necessary, he said.
“For correspondents working at a foreign news bureau, they will be granted multiple six month visas, and those providing occasional news coverage will get up to one month stay,” said Ye Htut.
“Journalists covering a specific event – like an ASEAN meeting – will be granted two days before the event and two additional days after.”
He said the government decided to change the regulations because foreign journalists have been staying in the country long-term, without working at a bureau or contacting the Foreign Correspondent’s Club.
Several events slated for 2014 are expected to draw attention from international media, like nationwide ceasefire talks, constitutional reform and the lead-up to Burma’s 2015 elections.
Zaw Thet Htwe, member of the interim Press Council, said 2014 will bring major challenges for media freedom.
“We have a lot of concerns over whether media freedom will keep the same pace as in 2012-13, as we have already seen journalists and editors jailed and prosecuted while the parliament is taking its time to adopt new laws,” said Zaw Thet Htwe.
“And now this happens, which shows that media workers and journalists in Burma will continue to walk an uncertain path.”
An annual report by international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RWB) offered a similar premonition on Wednesday; though Burma’s world ranking for press freedom has risen over the past few years, recent setbacks have “caused worry”, according to Benjamin Ismail, head of RWB Asia-Pacific Desk.
“We are skeptical, and we will have to wait and see if Burma can really pose itself as a regional model,” he said.
Kyaw Zwa Moe, editor of Rangoon-based Irrawaddy News, said the abrupt change of visa regulations has made operations difficult.
“It’s difficult for us with these abrupt changes – last year, we used to be granted three month visas and allowed to extend them multiple times,” said Kyaw Zwa Moe.
“It is questionable,” he said, “why there are changes all of a sudden.”
Several incidents — including the detention and questioning of journalists and an inert media regulation package — have brought Burma’s perceived media progress under intense scrutiny since late last year.