The head of Burma’s powerful state censorship body called Friday for press freedom in the country, saying his own department should be closed down as part of reforms being pursued by the new nominally civilian government.
“Press censorship is non-existent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future,” Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department told RFA in an interview.
But, he said, newspaper and other publications should accept press freedom with “responsibilities.”
Tint Swe’s department, set up more than four decades ago when the military took over the country, has eased restrictions on certain media coverage since the new government of President Thein Sein took power early this year after elections called by the then-ruling military junta, which had been accused of blatant human rights abuses.
All media publications had to send drafts of their reports to the censorship department previously.
Since June 10, the department allowed publications dealing with entertainment, sports, technology, health and children’s issues to practice “self censorship,” whereby editors themselves were given the task of omitting materials that may be deemed as sensitive instead of sending their draft reports to the department.
Publications that covered politics and other issues deemed sensitive by the authorities, however, have to continue sending drafts of their reports to the department.
A matter of time
Tint Swe said it was just a matter of time before all publications are “free from any kind of censorship” and for the first time, private groups would be allowed to establish daily newspapers under a new media law, a draft of which is before parliament.
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He also said that newspapers were being allowed to publish reports on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi without restrictions previously imposed under military rule.
Last month, Burmese magazine “The Messenger” was suspended for two weeks for carrying a full cover picture of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“There are no restrictions now on coverage for Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities and more freedom is expected in the near future as the country undergoes democratic change,” he said.
Burmese authorities also last month lifted a longstanding ban on international news websites, exiled Burmese news websites and YouTube.
Still, foreign media watchdogs say Burma’s heavily censored media remains among the most restricted in the world.
The government has made virtually no progress on press freedom, said an analysis last month by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
State censors are still actively spiking news stories and there is pervasive state surveillance of reporters’ communications and movements, with at least 14 journalists and media support workers behind bars, the group said.
Authorities continue to “systematically harass, sanction, and imprison journalists, particularly those who report undercover for exile-run media groups,” it said.
CPJ said interviews with seven Burma-based journalists and six journalists working for exile media revealed that President Thein Sein’s government has not dismantled the extensive mechanisms of control and repression that the previous military regime employed to stifle independent reporting and critical commentary.
Since last year’s elections, two journalists have been sentenced to long prison terms and more than a dozen publications have been suspended for their news reporting, it said.
News publications that are privately owned and run have proliferated in recent years, with around 200 journals, magazines, and newspapers currently in circulation, CPJ said. Those publications, however, are heavily censored and are often forced to publish state-prepared news and commentaries that present the government and its policies in a glowing light.
Burma ranked second to last in Internet freedom in a report called “Freedom on the Net 2011,” released by Washington-based information watchdog Freedom House.
Win Tin, a former journalist who is now a leader in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, said there were speculations that groups close to retired military generals may get permission to publish daily newspapers when the new press law is introduced.
The Burmese government has launched talks with Aung San Suu Kyi and invited armed ethnic groups to hold peace negotiations as part of a program of reform initiatives but is under pressure to release about 2,000 political prisoners to underline its seriousness toward achieving democracy and freedom.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.