Burma: How real are new press freedoms?

RANGOON, Burma — Like most Burmese journalists, Ye Naing Moe had never trusted the bureaucrats at the Ministry of Information — and with good reason.

His father, a political activist, had been arrested four times, and he himself had been spied on by government agents. His journalism students were followed and interrogated about his lectures. "In the past, well, I wasn't loved by the authorities," he said with a wry grin.

So he was shocked last year when a top official at the ministry phoned up asking him to run a series of week-long workshops for the government's top public affairs officers. He was to teach the bureaucrats a skill they had never before needed to know — how to help journalists write the news.

Even more surprising, the official put no restrictions on the subjects that could be brought up during class. Ye Naing Moe planned lessons explaining the value of the Fourth Estate and press freedom.

“At first, I thought, ‘what a job!’ I worried the government would punish me depending on what I taught,” he said. “But then I decided, why not?”

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To him, it was yet another sign of Burma’s increasingly open media climate. For decades, this country, officially known as Myanmar, has borne international censure for beating, jailing and torturing journalists. But last year, after the emergence of a nominally civilian government led by President Thein Sein, editors began to notice a radical relaxation of censorship, even for politically sensitive topics. Many have heralded the development as a sign the new government is serious about democratic reforms.

The next test will be a press law expected to come up for discussion in parliament later this year, which, if passed, would eliminate the censorship board and the requirement for editors to submit newspapers to censors before publication, according to those who have seen a draft of the law. It could also allow private companies to set up daily newspapers— to this point, they have only been allowed to publish weeklies.

“I hope this law will be a turning point,” said Zeya Thu, senior editor of Voice Weekly, a private Burmese newspaper focusing on political issues.

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Journalists interviewed pegged the beginnings of the new press freedoms to a speech Thein Sein made last March, where he called for respect for the role of the media. Since then, censors struck out less and less from newspapers before publication.

Once forbidden issues could now be broached — for instance, the serene visage of Aung San Suu Kyi, the iconic opposition party leader whose image was once banned in public places — began appearing on the front pages of many newspapers, sometimes flanked by photos of other political dissidents.

At the time of her release from house arrest in 2010, the censorship board reportedly issued an edict stating her photo could be published, but it couldn’t take up the whole front page.

U Ko Ko, who publishes the Yangon Times and Flower News, two private weeklies focused on current events, said he even began resubmitting old articles that hadn’t made the censors’ cut. This time, they were accepted.

“In the past, they would scrutinize every sentence in every piece,” he said. “Now they change less than 10 percent.”

He and other editors also noted they could now go over changes with censors on the phone, pushing for articles they wanted to keep. Sometimes the censors would change their minds.

Relationships with censors have even become friendly, they said. “A year ago, I would never even have asked,” said Thiha Saw, who edits the privately held Open News Weekly, which focuses on political news. “Now I can call.”

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The developments are not all positive. News on ethnic conflicts and government mistreatment of ethnic minorities is still verboten — no small matter in a country whose government has been accused of a slew of human rights violations in conflict zones.

In addition, the government continues to make it difficult for journalists to access these remote areas, making it almost impossible to independently report developments there.

Access to government officials has improved, journalists said. During the first parliament session early last year, the press was forbidden from entering proceedings. The second parliament session was open to press, and journalists were even able to interview lawmakers.

Newspapers published by Burmese in exile, long considered pariahs within Burma, were also allowed in to report.

Readers in Burma have warmed to the new openness. Editors reported radical increases in circulation — for instance, Zeya Thu’s Voice Weekly jumped from 32,000 copies distributed last year to 82,000 now.

Still, these changes have yet to be codified, which is what makes the media law so crucial. Many things about the content of the law are still unclear, including whether it will encompass broadcast and online outlets in addition to print publications.

Another fear is that in lieu of pre-emptive censorship by government, editors may be forced to self-censor to protect themselves from post-publication repercussions — a tall order considering that changing norms make it difficult to know what news the government will take issue with.

“We expect the press law to still be restrictive. We want an independent body, like the Indian press council,” instead of the censorship board, Thiha Saw said. “The main thing is we don’t want it to be the worst media law in Southeast Asia.”

Part of the credit for the reforms could belong to the country’s top censor, Tin Shwe, who despite his office has called repeatedly for greater press freedom and promised the dissolution of his own board.

However, his boss, Minister of Information Kyaw Hsan, doesn’t seem to share those reformist leanings. In response to a proposal for greater press freedom last year, he compared journalists to vicious red ants.

“He wants to create change, but there are limitations,” U Ko Ko said of Tin Shwe, whom he speaks with frequently about changes to his own newspapers, and whom he considers a close friend.

For now, publishing a newspaper in Burma is still a cumbersome affair. Editors said only companies with government ties could successfully register a publication. Newspapers focused on politics and economics must submit copies to censors, known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, about one week in advance.

There, some of the department’s roughly 100 staffers go over the drafts with red markers, scrawling comments or drawing scarlet Xs through entire articles. After approval by top management, who are usually military officials, the draft is sent back to editors for publication.

Still, the reforms to this point have sparked an unprecedented hope for journalists who once contended with an omnipresent fear of persecution.

Sithu Zeya, a 22-year-old photographer, was arrested in April 2010 for snapping photos of the aftermath of a bombing for Thailand-based Democratic Voice of Burma. Beaten, tortured and sentenced to 18 years in prison, he was set free last month along with 651 other political prisoners.

Asked what he would do now that he had been released, he said he would go right back to journalism — this time, maybe even for domestic media.

“The media is freer now, but progress is still slow,” he said. “Whatever the case, if I’m doing the right thing, I’ll have no regrets.”

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