Gains need consolidation in landmark year for change

[Myanmar country report for Working within Bounds: Southeast Asia Press Freedom Challenges for 2013. Original/print title: Gains need consolidation in landmark year for change in Burma]

Burma’s parliament officially dissolved the country’s infamous Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) on 24 January 2013. The body under the Ministry of Information has overseen content regulation of the country’s news journals under the military regime and into the new nominally civilian government.

The dissolution formalizes an earlier government order in August 2012 to stop pre-publication censorship of the country’s privately-owned news weeklies. Since then, the PSRD practically stopped its usual functioning. The body still checked newspapers post-publication to check compliance with a 16-point guideline that still prohibited, among others, criticism of state domestic and foreign policy.

The reduction in function began even earlier in June 2011, when the PSRD stopped censoring sports, entertainment technology publications, and later those publishing on business and crime.

The step-by step scaling back of the scope of the PSRD’s work is reflective of the overall process of change toward greater media freedoms in Burma: tentative reforms in are made in gradual instalments as the government warily tries out relaxing the strict rules that has governed the country for half a century.

Showcase

The move towards greater press freedoms is no doubt a key government centrepiece for reform towards democracy that has won the country unprecedented praise especially in 2012.

President Thein Sein has transitioned from being junta general number 2 (after State Peace and Development Council Chairman, Senior General Than Shwe) as the appointed prime minister in 2007 to becoming a civilian president in 2010 appointed by the national parliament dominated by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Apart from allowing the press to report more freely, he has called Burma’s political exiles to return to the country and help in its development. In August 2012, the government lifted the ban on persons blacklisted from entering the country. The list is far from comprehensive, but it included activists, exiles, foreign journalists and dignitaries.

Peace talks were also initiated with all of the country’s ethnic armed insurgencies, including renewing negotiations with those already in ceasefires with the previous junta.

And more prominently, the Thein Sein government allowed the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest the April 2012 by-elections for the 46 parliament seats vacated by him and his USDP party-mates appointed to the cabinet.

NLD, which was banned from participating in the 2010 elections, almost swept the by-elections from the USDP. It won 43 of the 44 seats they contested, missing out only in the constituency where their candidate was disqualified. These elections enabled former political prisoner and democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi to become a member of parliament and officially engage government policy-making and implementation.

The European Union has described these developments as a “remarkable process of reform”. The Myanmar government has been able tap great potential economic gain coming out from decades of diplomatic isolation.

In July 2012, United States President Barack Obama lifted the investment ban on the country, except for ventures tied to businesses of the military regime. EU permanently lifted all economic sanctions except for an arms embargo to Myanmar on 22 April 2013, after a provisional suspension a year earlier.

Lifting economic sanctions are designed to reward and encourage the reforms undertaken in the country. However, foreign policy analysts also see these as a means to woo the country away from its economic and technological dependence on China that has supported the government since the military regime.

On other fronts however, conflict and unrest have broken out with some of the country’s minority groups. In the north, fighting has continued since June 2011 when a 17-year old ceasefire with the Kachin ethnic movement ended after the Tadmadaw (Myanmar Army) forces attacked rebel positions in what is believed to be an attempt to take control of territory for lucrative energy projects.

Tensions have not diminished to this day despite foreign-backed ceasefire talks. The renewed conflict has also raised questions about Thein Sein’s command of the Tatmadaw, especially when the army launched artillery strikes on the Kachins one day after he announced a unilateral ceasefire on 13 January 2013.

In the south-western part of the country, riots erupted in June 2012 between Buddhist Rakhines and Muslim Rohingyas in Arakan State; and a state of emergency was imposed to enable the army to join in suppressing the violence. Riots again flared up in October, signalling that the conflict is far from resolved.

Religious tensions have seemingly expanded into among Buddhist and Muslim Burmans after violence flared up in other parts of the country in February 2013.

The Rohingya riots have also exposed conflicting positions in the Burmese media community in this period of reform. It has the potential to threaten much needed community unity in this period when media freedom gains are still tenuous. (See “Divisive issue”)

Expanding space

Burma’s media in exile — including Delhi-based agency Mizzima news, Chiang Mai-based magazine The Irrawaddy and Oslo-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) – made informal visits into the country in late 2011 to explore the expanding media space.

By the second half of 2012 Mizzima and Irrawaddy have established offices and started publishing from the old capital of Yangon, while DVB’s television programs became accessible on cable TV. Reading and watching news programs from these media was unthinkable for many citizens in the merely two years prior, and can only be done in secrecy under threat of criminal prosecution.

The new space is the result of the efforts of Burma’s local media to increase coverage of the opposition and other previously restricted or prohibited topics in private weekly journals since 2011. Slowly, and often carrying consequences of warning, suspension and even jail terms for some journalists and publishers dared push the limits of what can be reported in the news.

By March 2012, government had given enough space for journalists to announce that the latter could cover, with limitations, the1 April by-elections. Later in November, the Myanmar Supreme Court would similarly announce that there was nothing stopping journalists from covering court proceedings.

The government also announced in March the disbandment of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association (MJWA) which was the only association legally sanctioned by the Ministry of Information. The dissolution, the MOI said, meant that the different subsectors – publishers, literary writers, and journalists – would be free to organize their own associations.

During that month, too, the Ministry of information called a second consultation on media development (the first was held in January) with UNESCO, the Burmese media and international media rights groups. The ministry showcased its plan to draft a new media law that will replace the repressive laws that loomed over the media community since 1964. No draft of the new law was discussed or shared during these consultations, but government promised to guarantee “100% press freedom” under the new laws.

The changing media environment also affected the state-owned press when the government announced in October 2012 that these would become “public service media”, shifting away from its established role as government mouthpieces. As a first step, a committee composed of local experts and media advocates was appointed to set a framework and a code of ethics for the state broadcast and press media outfits.

Another positive sign is the emergence of provincial and ethnic journals in different parts of the country including for example in the Shan, Mon, Karen and Chin States and in the Bago Division. These provincial news journals differ from journals in the capital in that they focused on news of their respective regions and regional interests, which are not covered by most mainstream journals. Some have separate sections in ethnic languages, which are vital for preserving their ethnic cultures and languages.

Journalist solidarity

In the wake of the dissolution of the MWJA, three organizations emerged to promote the rights and welfare of journalists.

The Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), intended to replace the obsolete MJWA, emerged during the commemoration of the World Press Freedom Day in on 3 May. Most MJA members were from MJWA, and comprised of mainly senior journalists, editors and publishers.  The Myanmar Journalist Network (MJN), meanwhile, is mainly composed of young reporters and editors, which started in late 2011 from a self-help group and social activities. Finally, the Myanmar Journalist Union (MJU) was formed in 12 March 2012 by Zaw Thet Htwe, a famous journalist imprisoned for many times with members of the Eleven media group, and editors, writers and designers.

Since their formation, these journalist groups have taken part in government initiatives, including the Interim Press Council, conducted media training, and worked with media organizations abroad to exchange information on the local and international media environment.

While there were criticisms for having separate journalists groups instead of one, all three journalist groups support a common goal for development of the media industry, safeguarding press freedom and enhancing journalist’s rights.

Significantly, the Committee for Press Freedom (CPF) also emerged to specifically promote the issue. Its members come from all three groups and include other independent journalists. The CPF played a key role in galvanizing community action on urgent issues that threatened press freedom.

Local journalists staged a street protest on 6 August against the suspension of two weekly journals. The unprecedented display of solidarity caused authorities to immediately reverse the suspension of the weeklies.

Turbulent transition

The protest of journalists indicates that the transition towards more media freedoms has not been a smooth one. On the contrary, advances were achieved by pushing the existing limits set by government to enforce the repressive laws that remained in place.

Before its functions were limited in August to post-publication review of private publications, the PSRD went on its usual role of regulating the news as evidenced by the following acts:

  • Warning in March opposition publication D-Wave of the NLD and Toetakyay of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party for publishing materials critical of the government;
  • Suspending in April Myanmar Post Global’s supplement pages because the weekly had repeatedly not submitted the section for pre-press scrutiny;
  • Prohibiting in May all journals from reporting on the resignation of the Vice President;
  • Suspending in June the Snapshot weekly for publishing the publishing the photo of a dead rape victim in an incident that had sparked inter-ethnic riots in Rakhine state. The editor was subsequently charged with incitement to violence;
  • Warning in July Venus Journal and Yangon Times over news reports of a stroke suffered by Army commander General Maung Aye;
  • Suspending in August Venus Journal for reports of a cabinet reshuffle; and
  • Suspended in August the Envoy for reporting the actions of an ill-tempered member of parliament.

Beyond the PSRD, other government agencies and officials, too, demonstrated unease over the freer media environment. Lawsuits for defamation and even “disturbance of the work of a government official” were filed over the year against journalists and private journals who reported on stories involving corruption and substandard public works.

More disturbingly, most of the lawsuits, warnings and suspensions were imposed for news or opinion articles concerning governance. These topics form part of the function of the media as the Fourth Estate and are considered regular news fare in countries with freer press.

Of the above actions by the PSRD, it appears that only the suspension of Snapshot journal fell within internationally-recognized limits on the right to freedom of opinion and expression preventing incitement to violence. The other incidents vividly demonstrated and served as warnings to the rest of the media that repressive media laws – such as the 1962 Printers and Publications Act that gave the PSRD its mandate – were still in force.

Divisive issue

Meanwhile, rioting in Rakhine State broke out in June and October 2012 involving majority Buddhist Rakhines and minority Muslim Rohingyas. The violence has exposed grave differences between local media and the formerly-exiled and foreign media in how to report the conflict.

Local media criticized the formerly exiled and international media of taking sides with the Rohingya, who are not among the officially-recognized ethnic groups. They are accused of internationalizing a local issue, and undermining national sovereignty to influence local policies.

On the other hand, local media are accused of fuelling the ethnic conflict by taking sides with the majority Buddhist ethnic Rakhine and discriminating against the Rohingya, who are called “illegal immigrants”, “foreign invaders” or “terrorists” in the local press.

Both sides are accused of issuing biased or even fabricated reports and misleading photographs of the violence in their printed and online social media pages.

Apart from differing perspectives in their coverage of the conflict, the debate has also taken other forms: the DVB and Mizzima websites were attacked apparently by pro-Rakhine hackers; also, people rallied in front of the offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) to protest their coverage of the conflict.

The debate has led to changing alliances between media and concerned parties. Generally, all media in the country have stood together with political parties and UN organizations against the government and military abuses in the other ethnic conflicts and in suppressing press freedom. However, the Rohingya issue made local media and political parties (both Burmese and ethnic parties) compromise with government and military positions on the issue.

At this point, it is not clear how the divide in approaching the conflict will impact the long term unity of both local and returning Burmese media in other issues confronting journalists, especially on press freedom. Their differences have extended to the reportage on the extension of ethno-religious tension in Yangon in February 2013 and rioting in Meiktila, near the new capital of Naypyidaw in March.

Not yet institutionalized

Amidst the dramatic advances in media freedom and the challenges confronting the media community in the process, it must be made clear that reform has yet to be institutionalized, and can swing either towards better protection of media freedom or continued restrictions.

To date, there is not much tangible proof of media reform, apart from the dissolution of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, and the publication of private news dailies that began on 1 April 2013.

Without a new media law, repression is still the norm with the 1962 Printing and Publications Act, and other similar laws looming large over the media sector. While the space for political reportage, news and editorial coverage of the simmering ethnic and religious conflicts present a point of potential intervention on the media.

The decline in the act of suppression of the media in Burma in 2012 can be attributed to the non-implementation of these repressive laws and depend only on the temperament of the government official in charge. Concretely, for example, the improved media atmosphere and the increased dialogue with the media can be directly linked to the change in the leadership of the Ministry of Information (MOI) from Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, who has held the position since 2002, to the current minister, Aung Kyi.

The conduct of reform, too, has changed with the change of ministers. Initially, MOI had formed the Myanmar Core Press Council (MCPC) in 10 August to, among others, draft a journalist code of ethics, settle disputes involving the press, and supervise the output of the press in conformity with the law. The 20-member MCPC, which was envisaged to replace the PSRD, only had three representatives from the ranks of journalists, and were all handpicked by the Ministry without consultation with journalists.

With Aung Kyi taking over as minister on 27 August in a cabinet reform, the MCPC was changed into the Myanmar Press Council (Interim), which will help draft a new media law – a task not given to the MCPC. Representation of the 29-member interim body and consultations from the new journalist organizations were also improved.

Still, the direction of reform in the media law remains in question. Towards the end of February 2013, a draft law called the Printers and Publishing Enterprise Law (PPEL) was released to the media. The law, which was aim to establish rules of business in the publishing industry, still retained strict government control on the establishment and distribution of new publications, as well as imposed limits on government criticism.

The draft PPEL undercut the process of the drafting a new media law, and drew criticism from the local media community, including the Interim Press Council, and international media rights groups.

The PPEL, as the first new law on the press released under this period of so-called reform, is a threatening indicator of the direction of that the Myanmar government is taking. The government still seems bent to retain control of the press and right to freedom of opinion and expression.