Myanmar’s ‘baby steps’ to media freedom
Independent journalists and newspapers in Myanmar are celebrating what, in their circumstances, is a small though not insignificant concession by the government to allow the independent media a greater measure of elbow room to function outside the stranglehold of a political culture that has long viewed freedom of expression as consistent with anti-state activity.
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is the largest country in South East Asia. Its contemporary history has been dominated by tough and uncompromising military rule, on the one hand, and, on the other, the political resilience of the country’s best-known citizen, the Nobel Laureate and pro-democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. Up until now it is the military and their ways that have held sway.
A week ago Myanmar’s Information Ministry announced that its appropriately named Press Scrutiny and Registration Department will no longer be requiring the country’s privately-run media houses to submit for prior state vetting material intended for publication. Understandably, the independent media houses regard the development as a significant if, in the circumstances, a modest concession to media freedom by the civilian government of President Thein Sein – reportedly a moderate former army general – that still functions under the beady eye of a military establishment which continues to be wary of democratic rule.
Myanmar is one of those countries in which state-driven rules and regulations designed to suppress media freedom have been coarse and vulgar rather than suave and subtle. Its Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, which literally serves as the government’s media gatekeeper, is widely loathed by independent media houses.
Myanmar’s quixotic media laws have allowed the military to imprison journalists and to otherwise control the media through blacklisting and other forms of restraint on publication, though it has been unable to either suppress the publication of illegal media or shield itself from the prying eyes of the international media and, by extension, the international community. On the other hand, the law governing the prior official scrutiny of articles intended for publication has created sufficient logistical nightmares for the media to render it difficult if not impossible for them to operate to regular schedules.
It is the prying eyes of the international media coupled with the attention that Aung Sang Suu Kyi has drawn to Myanmar that have led to the country’s modest political reforms and the attendant concessions to media freedom. That having been said, however, the country’s civilian administration, including as it does, a significant military influence, is by no means inclined to let the media off the leash on which it has had to function for decades. Rather, what it has done is to lengthen that leash, some say, to give the independent media more rope with which to hang themselves. Why? After all, the laws that allowed for prior censorship by the Press Scrutiny Department have not been removed from the statutes, so that media houses and journalists still run the risk of being punished by government if that which is published is subsequently deemed by the authorities to be, for one reason or another, offensive.
The point that should be made here is that measured by the standards of media freedom that obtain in democratically governed countries, the removal of prior state censorship in Myanmar is hardly an earth-shattering official concession. When, however, the decision is viewed against the backdrop of the country’s long nightmare of suppression of the media as part of a broader regime of brutal military rule, it becomes a landmark development.
Up until the new reformist government took office in March last year Myanmar’s reporters had been regarded as among the most restricted in the world. Routine state surveillance which included phone taps, internet access restrictions and other forms of censorship – including restrictions on publication of photographs of Aung San Suu Kyi – were sufficiently intense to render it impossible for independent newspapers to publish on a daily basis.
Not a great deal can be said to have changed for the media in Myanmar since the accession to office of the Thein government. On the other hand the new circumstance in which the independent media houses find themselves is a challenge for both the seemingly reformist political administration and independent media houses and journalists in the country. Whether or not the government will be bold enough to continue to push media reforms to a point where the still existing thicket of restrictive laws is removed altogether, and whether, for example, evolving reforms will reach a point where the atrocities will be openly ventilated in the media inside Myanmar is, for the moment, unclear. Certainly, the gradualism reflected in the pace of media reforms being pursued by the Thein administration would appear to suggest that the government is – to say the least – hedging its bets.
From the vantage point of the independent media what makes the recent official change in the procedures for the publication of articles significant is the fact that, to a considerable extent, the relaxing of the law creates space for them to help determine the pace at which media reform proceeds. What the authorities in Myanmar have done is to reconfigure the laws in such a way as to require of independent media houses a greater level of self-censorship. It is how they choose to handle their new-found breathing space, coupled, of course, with the extent of popular internal pressure and international support for a hastening of the pace towards further media reforms that will determine the longer-term outcome of last week’s development.