Burmese Journalists Still Face Prison

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Changes to Burma’s nearly half-century old censorship regime were announced earlier this week. While some reports have said censorship is finished, Burma’s press censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), will continue to monitor what is published and retain the same punitive powers over the press it has always enjoyed.

The changes merely mean that journalists no longer need to submit political and religious content to the censors for approval prior to publication. News content will now be examined after it has been published.

The PSRD still has the power to suspend publication or revoke a publishing license if they feel printed materials have violated publishing rules. Journalists and editors will still face the possibility of imprisonment.

The head of the government’s PSRD, Tint Swe, said that the easing of restrictions was the result of policy changes within the Ministry of Information.

He warned that journalists "need to be responsible" and that they "…will need to adhere to ethics, and will need to be responsible in the use of their freedoms".

At the same time the change was announced, the PSRD handed down a strict 16-point set of guidelines that journalists and editors must follow.

The guidelines forbid news journals from criticising the state. They also prohibit "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".

Responses to the announced change have been mixed. Thiha Saw, the editor of two privately-owned weekly publications, sees the latest easing of restrictions as positive, saying that they are a "barometer for the reform process".

However the President of the Burma Media Association, U Maung Myint, is more cautious. He said, "It is too early to say that this is a genuine reform because there are still quite a few media-unfriendly laws … that could send a journalist to prison".

Restrictive laws such as the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and 2004 Electronics Act that have been used to silence and imprison journalists and editors in the past have not been repealed. Moreover, Burma is one of the few countries in the world with criminal defamation laws. If found guilty editors can be imprisoned for up to two years.

These restrictions are likely to result in journalists and editors being more cautious about what they print. They will only know whether they have pushed the boundaries of what is deemed acceptable when it is too late.

Despite this change and some earlier easing of restrictions on the press, Burma’s media environment remains very restricted. Burma continues to rank poorly on the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index — 169 out of 179.

Issues of public interest remain taboo and cannot be covered. Editors recently received a stern warning not to report on fighting in Arakan State and there has been a media blackout on the ongoing conflict and human rights crisis in Kachin State.

Corruption in government is another taboo issues. Earlier this year the Burmese Ministry of Mines filed a lawsuit against journal "The Voice" for publishing allegations of corruption against the department. The case is ongoing.

Private daily publications remain banned. This is expected to change soon, however at the moment only state-run media outlets can publish daily.

Last month the PSRD suspended two private news publications for violating the government’s censorship guidelines. The suspensions have since been lifted.

Press freedom is still a long way off for Burma. The country needs a flourishing free press where journalists can ask the tough questions, report on all issues and be fearless in their news coverage. This is not possible until all restrictions on the media are lifted, restrictive laws repealed, imprisoned journalists are freed and censorship truly abolished. If those in power are genuinely dedicated to press freedom, there is no reason for the ongoing restriction of the media to continue.

New Matilda

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