By Zin Linn
The director of Burma’s authoritarian state censorship board – the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department – gave a rare interview to the Washington DC based Radio Free Asia (Burmese Branch) Saturday. Tint Swe, a retired major and head of PSRD, said that he believes press freedom will come in accordance with democratic norms within an appropriate time in Burma which was under the nominally civilian government since March this year.
He even expressed his personal view that his own censorship office should be shut down, RFA broadcast Saturday. Tint Swe said that the PSRD has been created since 1962 under the late Gen Ne Win’s regime.
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law was introduced shortly after the 1962 military-coup that brought Gen Ne Win and his Burma Socialist Programme Party to power forcibly. Under this law all printers and publishers are required to register and submit copies of books, magazines and periodicals to Press Scrutiny Boards (PSB) for scrutiny prior to publication or production, or in some cases after. The PSB, which was under the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs, had general powers to veto publications and command revision in line with the junta’s policies, at a large expenditure to the publisher.
In 1989, sentences under the Printers and Publishers Registration Law are increased to seven years imprisonment and fines to 30,000 kyats ( $ 5,000).
Tint Swe told Radio Free Asia that censorship should come to an end as part of democratic reforms under the new civilian government.
“There is no press censorship office in most countries in the world including our neighbors and as it is not compatible with democratic norms, press restriction should be abolished in the near future,” he said in an interview with RFA Burmese Service.
But he added that newspapers and other publications should accept press freedom with responsibilities.
In response to the question concerning democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi,Tint Swe said that news journals and periodicals have been allowed to publish photos and news-reports on pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi exclusive of restrictions that were previously forced.
“The coverage for Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities is not restricted now and further press freedom is predictable in the near future as the nation go through democratic change,” he told the RFA Burmese Service.
Since the new President Thein Sein’s government came to power in March after controversial November elections, Burma’s information minister has announced an insignificant moderation of inflexible censorship rules for some journals and periodicals, whereas keeping rigid limitations on political and economic news issues.
In June, sports journals, entertainment magazines, factions and some unimportant journals have been allowed to publish without permission in advance from the PSRD.
In September, Internet users in Burma can have access visiting banned media websites for the first time, including the BBC and exiled media organizations such as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
Journalists in Burma have received draconian jail sentences for reporting information challenging to the regime. In January 2010, DVB reporter Hla Hla Win received a 20-year sentence for violating the Electronic Act, and is now in jail serving 27 years; her helper, Myint Naing got seven years. There are a total of 17 DVB journalists behind bars.
Photojournalist Sithu Zeya had been sentenced to eight years in jail last December. Zeya was sentenced by the military controlled court in Insein prison for his photos of the scene of an explosion at a traditional water festival pavilion in Rangoon in April 2010. Sithu Zeya’s father, Maung Maung Zeya, also a video reporter for DVB, was sentenced on February 4, 2011 to a total of 13 years in prison by an arbitrary court in Rangoon.
Paris based Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) ranks Burma 174 out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index. The country is one of the few in the world to operate such a strictly censored system. Burma’s ranking was expected and well deserved. In fact, there is no press freedom at all in Burma.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also said last month that Burma’s press freedom remained among the world’s most restricted, calling for an end to “draconian” reporting laws and for the freeing of jailed journalists.
Unless the Thein Sein government guarantees human rights including the freedom of expression and freedom of association, people will not believe that the government is on the right track of reforms.