For decades Burma has been among the world’s most tightly controlled media environments, with officials checking everything from newspapers to song lyrics before release.
Frustrated journalists frequently turned to media groups outside of the country and wrote under pseudonyms for fear of repercussion from the government. A little over a year ago, local journals were still banned from running articles on democracy icon and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who now frequently appears on the front covers of English and Burmese language publications.
Those days, it seems, are over. This week the information ministry announced it will cease the censorship of all local publications — including, for the first time, political and religious journals.
It’s an historic moment for the emerging democracy, but Burma still has some way to go before embracing full freedom of the press according to journalists and watchdogs.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
Sein Win, the managing director of Burmese news agency Mizzima, tells Crikey certain topics remain largely no-go areas.
“If you talk about the ethnic and religious conflict here, this is still a sensitive issue,” Win said. “I am pretty sure you cannot talk about the military or internal affairs if you publish here, as these are still highly sensitive for the government.”
Win recently returned to Burma after almost 10 years of working with Mizzima’s offices in New Delhi and Thailand and says he doesn’t understand the government’s reluctance to fully release its grasp on the media.
“For me, I have been writing outside the country in freelance positions and I don’t understand why these are sensitive matters,” he said. “As a journalist I truly believe we have to be ethical and responsible and apart from that I don’t know why the state is concerned about these matters.”
Yet he says the organisation had not yet been provided with any written regulations, although other Rangoon-based journals including leading English newspaper The Myanmar Times reported they had been issued with a 16-point document prohibiting “wording that encourages, supports or incites individuals and organisations that are dissident to the state”, as well as “things that will damage ties with other countries”.
Previously, journals had to send their hard copy to the censorship board which would approve articles and photographs suitable for publication. “Our copy would come back with red lines cutting out certain text, or entire articles and photographs,” said one senior editor, adding around 20% of his newspaper’s content was often axed before publication.
A Burmese woman reads a journal with democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on the cover
Win says Mizzima, which also publish a weekly English business journal called MZINE+ focusing on politics, economics, social issues and personalities in Burma, have avoided censorship issues in the past by publishing stories directly online and producing their journals in Thailand before importing and distributing in Burma.
The group is now officially registered in Rangoon and preparing to release a weekly Burmese journal out of their Rangoon office, which Win says are an indication of the positive changes taking place in Burma. “We will see more and more vibrancy within our media environment within two or three years,” Win said, tipping the next big expansion to be in the TV sector.
Myo Lwin, a senior editor for The Myanmar Times, says the changes mark an exciting time to be working as a journalist in Burma and will lead to more confidence from the readers on stories covered by local media.
“As we are waiting for the permission to run daily, it is a very positive change,” he said, adding “we will be playing the leading role as a professional in the industry”.
Some of the main movers and shakers in Burma’s media scene include Mizzima and The Myanmar Times, which publish weekly in English and Burmese, and local language journals Seven Days,Weekly Eleven, Yangon Times and The Voice. Popular exile media groups included the Democratic Voice of Burma and the Irrawaddy, which are staffed by a mixture of Western and Burmese reporters and run out of Thailand.
While the government’s move to end pre-publication censorship has been welcomed by journalists and watchdogs, many feel that true freedom of the press won’t be guaranteed until the censorship board is abolished and an updated media law, with input from industry professionals, is drafted.
“Until the Burmese government undertakes thorough reform, journalists are still at risk of censure and the free flow of information cannot be guaranteed,” Shawn Crispin from the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based advocacy group, said in a statement.
Win says the media reforms are a positive step in line with the Burmese government’s reform process, but only time would tell how genuine the move is.
“It’s very difficult to judge at this stage whether they [the government] are genuine or not,” he said. “I believe the government is moving towards a democratic environment but they still have some fear and some corners of the government are hesitant to move forwards.
“This change is gaining momentum and nobody will stop it.”