By Zin Linn
The Press Scrutiny and Registration Department [PSRD] director Tint Swe tipped off the editors of some Burmese news journals last week that his office will have to impose punishment against periodicals so as to recall the censorship practice enforcing a ban on covering topics presumed thin-skinned to the safety measures of the state.
Recently, several journalists assumed that the censorship policy of the PSRD had become softer since they were allowed covering of news and photos of the democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi as well as activities of her party. But now it is getting cold again as the censor board chief has made verbal warning on covering of some sensitive issues, according to an editor who wishes to remain anonymous.
Last October, the director of Burma’s authoritarian state censorship board or the PSRD gave a rare interview to the Washington DC based Radio Free Asia (Burmese Branch). 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 has been ruled by a nominally civilian government since March 2011.
In his interview, he even expressed his personal viewpoint that his own censorship office should be shut down. 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. 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, often at a large cost to the publisher.
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 restrictions should be abolished in the near future,” he said in an interview with RFA Burmese Service.
On the contrary, reporting of a press conference on 21 January by leading members of the 88 Generation Students group was allowed only after heavy censorship, quoting a local journal editor the exile Irrawaddy online publication said.
“We were allowed to report their support of Aung San Suu Kyi and political reforms, but not their calls for creating a new student union or their vow to fly the peacock flag [symbolizing Burma’s pro-democracy movement],” said the editor, who also asked to be anonymous.
“We also couldn’t report their views on Burma’s ethnic conflicts, which they attributed to the government’s dishonesty in dealing with the ethnic groups,” the editor added.
Currently, news journals are not permitted to cover an affair between the Government-appointed Supreme Buddhist Monks Council – the 47-member Sangha Maha Nayaka – and the abbot U Pannya Siha of the Sadhu Pariyatti Monastery in Rangoon for his plainspoken political vision. The unfair judgment of the Supreme Buddhist Monks Council upon the abbot caused disturbance among the pro-democracy citizens.
Moreover, ahead of 1st April by-elections, news about alleged campaign irregularities by ruling party, the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), are also not allowed to make public.
A Burmese columnist explained that the Press Scrutiny Board does not issue written restricting orders but just gives verbal instructions to keep away from vulnerable topics. As yet, foreign periodicals with news reports on Burma have not been allowed putting on newsstands.
Nowadays, the state media and the private news journals are not allowed to cover the inhumane war against the Kachin Independence Organization launched by the Burma Army. However, Burmese people have enough knowledge about the brutal offensive of the government armed forces against the Kachin rebel and the innocent Kachin natives through the outside radios such as BBC, VOA and RFA.
According to the statement by the KIO’s central committee, the Burmese military’s campaign against the KIO has produced nearly 60,000 internally displaced persons and made thousands more suffer. Such news reports are never permitted to publish in the state media or the private journals.
Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said, “While recent signals have been positive from a press freedom perspective, there is still a long way to go before Burma’s news media could be considered even remotely free.”
“Until Thein Sein’s government ends pre-publication censorship of local publications and amends the various laws used to repress the press, Burma will remain among the most repressive media environments in the world,” said Crispin.