By Zin Linn
Burma’s Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was sworn in to military-dominated parliament Wednesday, taking public office for the first time since starting her great challenges against military-backed regimes more than two decades in the past. But, it seems just a first step to go ahead in the course of a long democracy journey.
Seeing Aung San Suu Kyi’s pragmatic political move, people believe that Burma (Myanmar) is currently struggling at an intersection in order to start a political restructuring. The quasi-civilian government led by President Thein Sein wants to maintain the country under limited or guided democracy while the majority population wishes a genuine chapter of democratic changes. Especially, citizens are demanding freedom of expression and association while the Union Government is dogmatically vetoing the basic rights of the citizens.
If the government is sincere enough concerning democratic reforms, the media must be free at the outset since free speech plus access to information is fundamental to a healthy democracy. But, free press has no chance to play independently so far in Burma. The political opposition as well as journalists and media personnel are under the strictest rules and regulations by the successive military regimes including the present so-called civilian government.
In the 1950s, Burma was at the vanguard of press freedom in Southeast Asia. The country had the benefit of a free press without censorship office. As many as three dozen newspapers, including English and Chinese dailies, existed between 1948 and 1962 under the civilian government. Even the prime minister’s office was never closed to journalists in those days. They were also free to set up relations with international news agencies.
The situation changed in 1962, when the military seized power. All newspapers were nationalized by the then junta led by Gen. Ne Win. The junta established a Press Scrutiny Board to enforce strict censorship practices on all forms of printed matter, including advertisements and obituaries. Since then, the military junta’s censorship and self-censorship are commonplace, and have severely restricted political rights and civil liberties.
The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division is a major oppressive tool of the then military regime. Not surprisingly, Burma stands downgraded from a free state to a prison state. No printed matter can be published without the PSRD’s permission. Photos, cassette tapes, movies and video footage also need the censor’s stamp before reaching the people. At the same time, the military concentrates to stop the flow of uncensored radio news in Burmese available from international broadcasting stations.
Moreover, the junta has come to dominate the media industry through publication companies owned by generals and their cronies. The radio, television and other media outlets are monopolized for propaganda warfare by the military regime and opposition views are never allowed. The regime does not even allow religious discourse.
Now, President Thein Sein government has been at the administrative center declaring itself as an elected civilian institute. However, the policy of free speech or expression is still unchanged. The PSRD office is still running on behalf of the one-year old President Thein Sein government.
No private owned daily newspapers are allowed to date. No independent radios or televisions are permitted so far. Private owned journals and periodicals have to publish under various threats by PSRD as usual.
Information minister Kyaw Hsan promised more media freedom during a two-day conference (19-20 March) in Yangon. Kyaw Hsan made an opening address at the conference.
“The goal of our current media reforms is the emergence of a genuine fourth estate in our democratization process where journalists have the right to seek, receive and impart information and news that are accurate, objective, fair and balanced,” Kyaw Hsan said in his speech.
On the other hand, PSRD or state censor-board has been stepping up barring on news and interviews on corruptions, abuses of law, land confiscation cases by cronies, mismanagement of ministries and war against ethnic groups. As long as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department existed, citizens could not enjoy the freedom of press and freedom of expression as their basic rights.
Moreover, the country needs abandoning the repressive laws which are directly against the basic citizens’ rights.
Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association urge the Burmese authorities to improve thoroughly the laws governing freedom of expression – especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505/B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 1923 Officials Secrets Act and the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act.