Has Burma’s Glasnost Begun?

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THURSDAY, 16 FEBRUARY 2012

Under the rule of former dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, Burma was one of the most media-unfriendly countries in the world. The press was denied access to everything from public debates to Parliamentary sessions, media websites were blocked and hacked, stories were censored in Orwellian fashion, and journalists were forced to stay as low-profile as possible, writing under pseudonyms, and often living in fear of arrest.

But things have changed under President Thein Sein’s administration. Government officials have begun speaking to the media, political news can be published in local journals, foreign journalists are being granted visas into the country, and various new regulations and laws on censorship and media are currently being discussed.

On Jan. 20, Thein Sein gave his first interview as president to foreign media when he spoke to The Washington Post.

Thein Sein, who never gave interviews to foreign media under the Than Shwe regime, told The Washington Post: “With regards to freedom of the media, you can see that it is not like it was before.

“The media needs to take responsibility … Media freedom will be based on the accountability they have,” he was reported as saying.

One immediately noticeable difference in government censorship that is apparent to everyday Burmese is the appearance of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s picture on the front pages of journals at news stands in the streets.

British writer Benedict Roger, the author of “Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant” recently returned from Burma. He said he bought local newspapers that had pages filled with news and images of Suu Kyi.

Rogers was deported from Burma in 2011 due to the contents of his book.

“This year, I had no problem with getting a visa,” he said. “Nobody said anything to me when I was walked through [Customs and Immigration] and nobody followed me,” he said. “My visit was smooth. It was very surprising.”

Under the military junta, foreign journalists and writers frequently sneaked into Burma posing as tourists. Those caught working were invariably deported and stamped persona non grata.

But since the new government took office in March 2011, foreign journalists and exiled Burmese journalists from BBC Burmese Service, VOA Burmese Service and Radio Free Asia have been granted media visas, a move observers say was an early indication of Naypyidaw’s policy of reform. News groups such as BBC, VOA and Al Jazeera are all reporting live now from Rangoon and Naypyidaw.

May Thingyan Hein, the chief editor of Shwe Myit Makha, an online news agency based in Rangoon, said, “We feel more confident. We feel we have more responsibility.”

She said that in the past almost every Rangoon-based journalist used a pseudonym when reporting or requested anonymity when speaking to foreign or exile media.

More and more publishers and journalists are now applying for licenses to open new publications. A few individuals or small groups such as Shwe Myit Makha and Yangon Press International have established their own online media outlets and update the latest news briefs through Facebook.

May Thingyan Hein said, however, that the policy of opening space for Burmese dissidents and exiled journalists who are critical of the Burmese government is in fact regarded in Naypyidaw as a major concession.

“Press freedom doesn’t totally exist, but I think it exists on some level,” she said.

Rogers, on the other hand, said that he felt the teashop atmosphere in Rangoon was much more open and less guarded than in previous times. “People are now quite open and will talk frankly [about politics]in the teashops in central Rangoon,” he said.

“Almost everybody I talked to said they believe the changes are genuine. I think this is the beginning of the process of openness,” he said.

In early February, a media workshop held in Rangoon was attended by media figures from around Southeast Asia and exiled Burmese journalists from BBC Burmese Service, VOA Burmese Service and Mizzima News Agency.

In the past, the state-run media in Burma ran prominent propaganda slogans slating those news groups for sowing discord and creating disunity among the population.

At the workshop, attendees debated an end to censorship in Burma and the enforcement of a draft media law.

Tint Swe, the director of Burma’s notorious Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, attended the forum and personally presented the newly drafted media law. He reportedly told those at the workshop that there would be no more censorship in Burma after the media law is enacted.

Aung Zaw, the editor of The Irrawaddy, recently visited Burma after 23 years in exile.

He said that the degree of press freedom is greater than before, but that the censorship board will still reject any articles that touch upon selectively sensitive issues—such as corruption, federalism, ethnic issues, military affairs and cronyism.

However, Burma’s press freedom should not be compared to neighboring countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia, he said, as those states have authoritarian governments. “It should instead be measured by universal standards of press freedom,” he said.

But although Rangoon-based journals still have to pass through the process of censorship, the government announced in June 2011 that publications and articles focusing on sports, technology, entertainment, health and children’s issues on longer had to be submitted for censorship.

A new media law titled “Printing Press and Publication Law,” which involves 10 chapters dealing with “rights, duties, and ethical codes for writers and journalists, and penalties” will be submitted to the Attorney General’s Office for comments, before going to the Cabinet and to Parliament for approval.

Many bloggers and citizen journalists prefer to use social networks for updating their readers. Many Rangoon-based websites and independent writers share information through Facebook, Blog, WordPress, and Googleplus.

Although there are no official statistics concerning Facebook users, the social network is hugely popular with millions of users and is very often the key source of information-sharing among people in Burma and in spreading news to the international community.

On the radio—for so long the rural person’s only conduit with the outside world—Burma’s state-run channels have now agreed to air some of Washington-based VOA’s programs, albeit selectively.

After his trip to Burma in late 2011, Than Lwin Tun, the head of the VOA Burmese Service, said that Information Minister Kyaw Hsan had agreed to selectively broadcast some of his organization’s products, such as international news, English education, health, science and technology programs.

Despite the practical concessions, however, several voices in the media remain skeptical.

A freelance journalist who works for foreign media organizations said, “It looks like the whole process is to please the West in order to get sanctions lifted. I really don’t know how genuine they [new government]are.”

Maung Wun Tha, the editor of Pyithu Khit, a Rangoon-based journal, said that sensitive issues such as the conflict with ethnic rebels were still taboo.

Reporting on the ongoing armed conflict in Kachin State was also off limits, he said.

Several observers say they see the stumbling block as Information Minister Kyaw Hsan—known to be a hardliner and an advocate of a strict censorship policy—who remains a key figure at the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Nonetheless, nine Burmese journalists including Zaw Thet Htwe and blogger Nay Phone Latt were freed in a government amnesty in January.

“I will keep writing even if it means I get arrested again,” said Nay Phone Latt. “Then we will know whether or not we have real [press]freedom.”

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