Moving Beyond the Lifting of Press Censorship

[Original title: Moving Beyond the Lifting of Press Censorship in Burma]

It has been a heady three weeks for the media in Burma: beginning on 31 July with the indefinite suspension of two weekly journals for pushing the limits of government regulations, the unprecedented street protest of journalists in response, the lifting of the suspension in response to the protests, the announcement of a new press council and its indefinite suspension, and culminating with the announcement on 20 August of the lifting of pre-publication censorship for local publications.

Journalists and observers in the region, along with other governments, are excitedly watching as these events unfold in a key area of Burma’s transition to democracy.

The sum of these developments seems to indicate a clear movement away from the 48-year censorship regime in the country that has been under military rule since 1962. Tightly controlled elections in 2010 installed a nominally civilian government, which has recently overseen road map of reforms.

On closer examination of press-related developments though, the transition seems to be a hit and miss venture reflecting the informal nature of these changes not backed by formal policy or a clear timetable. Most of the government responses are announced through a series of public messages.

The lack of any clear transition program has made it clear that oppressive media laws are still in place—including the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act—pending the enactment of a replacement press law. Only with the new law will an outline be clear of the true extent of freedoms that the government is willing to give the press.

However, the drafting process of the new press law has been conducted in the ‘normal’ way of the Burmese government. Although the draft made by the Ministry of Information has been submitted to President Thein Sein prior to its submission to Parliament, it must be noted that none of the emerging journalist groups have been consulted; nor have they seen any version of the draft law.

In the meantime, Burmese journalists will have to feel their way through the transition, waiting if the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) censors will flag any of their stories as having violated existing regulation. Because of the 20 August announcement lifting pre-publication screening, journals and other publications no longer have to submit their stories for approval by the PSRD. But, they still have to submit copies to the PSRD after publication in order to determine if they violated any existing regulation.

Removal of pre-publication censorship comes within one week of the government’s abortive announcement of a new body called the ‘Core Press Council’ (CPC), tasked to take over the functions of the PSRD before the new law comes in place. The formation of the CPC was scuttled following the withdrawal of members of the Myanmar Journalists Association (MJA), who complained that some of the functions of the new council closely resembled censorship.

Apart from the MJA, the CPC also received widespread condemnation from the press community, both journalists and publishers alike.

There is not much legitimacy left in the CPC after its five members, who come from the ranks of journalists, withdrew from participating in what would have been the country’s first press council. It is clear from the MJA reaction that they had no part in the creation of the CPC.

Amidst this confusion of how the government will handle the transition into the new press law, Burma’s press will have to rise to meet the challenges of the opening media environment. The zeal with which the media community has to tackle the ongoing conflict in the Arakan state for example, has exposed their overall lack in reporting capacity or a tendency to resort to the old tried-and-tested methods that are safer. Similarly, in attempting to expose corruption or wrongdoings, the media have found themselves being threatened with lawsuits. This reflects again the gap in the ability of journalists to thoroughly investigate cases, and the possibility that censorship will be replaced by post-publication legal reprimands.

But there are positive indicators. In addition to the MJA’s withdrawal that effectively scuttled the CPC, the 4 August reporters’ protest leading to the lifting of the suspension of The Voice Weekly and Snapshot News journals is a demonstration of their collective power to counter any reversal of their new freedoms.

Presently, a free-for-all atmosphere seems to pervade the Burmese media, with different powers—government, high officials, big businesses, media owners and, more recently, journalists—throwing their respective weights around through warnings, threats, suspensions, lawsuits, and mass actions. What seems to be missing amid this flurry is any space for consultation or dialogue on how best to shape the post-censorship media environment, especially with its most important stakeholders: journalists.