4 April 2012

Five reasons why IFEX members are sceptical about Burma's progress

A man reads the newspaper near the ballot station during the by-elections in Rangoon. The government still has a long way to go to make media freedom a reality, say IFEX members
A man reads the newspaper near the ballot station during the by-elections in Rangoon. The government still has a long way to go to make media freedom a reality, say IFEX members

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Aung San Suu Kyi's landslide electoral victory last weekend showed the world that Burma is continuing to move toward democratic reform. Coupled with other major press freedom achievements over the past year - at least 10 jailed journalists were freed, some bans on taboo topics were lifted, and noteworthy journalists in exile were recently granted visas to return to their homeland for the first time in decades - you would think that the media freedom situation was flourishing.

But as IFEX members are quick to point out, there are just as many signs that, in the words of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), "President Thein Sein's commitment to greater press freedom is still more rhetoric than reality."

Here are five of them:

i. The draft media law doesn't look promising.

The government is drafting a new media law that is meant to replace the old censorship body before the end of the year. Government authorities co-organised two distinguished conferences in January and March on the promised media reforms, which were attended by Mizzima News, ARTICLE 19 and other IFEX members and partners.

But participants left the meetings ambivalent about the government's intentions. CPJ voiced concern that the new media legislation will merely employ different tools of suppression, "similar to the legal restrictions on the press in neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam."

Will the law prevent threats to the media or allow anyone to publish on sensitive issues? The actual content of the media law is still anybody's guess - the full text has not been made public. "Constructive engagement with these texts from a variety of actors can only strengthen the text itself and most importantly their legitimacy," said ARTICLE 19.

It is unclear whether parliament, about 85 percent of which are members of the ruling party, will simply approve the document or whether it will seek wider consultation. Keep in mind too, that the recent gains by Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), have only resulted in about 6 percent of the seats in parliament.

ii. Laws that criminalise dissent are still on the books.

There has been no indication that the regime intends to overturn the various repressive laws on the books, many of which were crafted in colonial times, say ARTICLE 19 and CPJ.

Some of the key offenders:

The Electronics Act allows for jail terms for anyone who sends unauthorised information over the Internet. Authorities frequently have used the law to repress and imprison journalists, says CPJ.

Section 122 of the Penal Code of Burma 1957 prohibits any criticism of the government or the state.

The Printers and Publishers Registration Act 1962 establishes the government's controversial censorship arm, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), and broadcasting censorship board, which approve all press, television, radio and cinema content before they can publish.

Plus, there are big problems with the system in general. For example, the judicial system does not yet act independently or protect the rule of law, and Burma has yet to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which could provide more international and national legitimacy, says ARTICLE 19.

iii. Censorship prevails.

While it's true that pre-publication censorship has been relaxed in recent months (namely around fluffier lifestyle and entertainment stories), a recent International Media Support (IMS) report found that Burma's censorship board still orders the removal of approximately 20 to 25 percent of articles submitted by newspapers and magazines covering current affairs.

According to CPJ, censorship concerns were ironically underscored when the PSRD banned a critical commentary about the media reform conference written by veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win. The banned article was later published by "The Irrawaddy", an exile-run magazine and website.

iv. Press freedom violations were rife around the elections.

The lauded by-elections were subject to media restrictions. Ahead of the elections, the PSRD issued a list of "Do's and don'ts for the media covering the by-elections", reports the International Press Institute (IPI), including a ban on taking photographs or conducting interview within 500 metres of a polling station.

In the weeks leading up to the elections, the PSRD summoned and reprimanded the editors of two opposition-aligned newspapers for articles deemed overly critical of the government, according to Mizzima News.

The National League for Democracy's "D-Wave" was warned for publishing a political cartoon that depicted the PSRD as a chain preventing a news publication called "Press Freedom" from reaching clouds labelled "Democratic Sky." Officials called it "harsh, offensive and rude," said Mizzima, and the editors were forced to sign a pledge to mind their language in future.

The Rakhine Nationalities Development Party's (RNDP) journal was reprimanded for publishing a 29 February article entitled "From a Green Military Uniform Government to a Yellow-Skirt Democracy," which poked fun at the recent transition from a military to a quasi-civilian government.

Even Suu Kyi complained that government officials had censored a segment of one of her campaign speeches before it was aired on state-controlled media. The banned passage was critical of the previous military junta's abuse of laws to repress the population, and violated an Election Commission list of forbidden campaign topics.

"The nine-point list of banned topics has effectively muted critical debate on the campaign trail and as a result blunted any hard-hitting news coverage of the pre-election period," said CPJ.

At a press conference on 30 March, Suu Kyi went on to say that irregularities went "beyond what is acceptable for democratic elections."

v. Burma still has political prisoners.

In January, Burma released more than 300 political prisoners in a presidential amnesty, including high-profile blogger Nay Phone Latt and all the jailed Democratic Voice of Burma journalists. The number of documented political prisoners before the release ranges from 500 to 1,500, says ARTICLE 19.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), at least five of those still locked away are journalists and bloggers (Zaw Tun, Win Saing, Ne Min, Aung Htun and Kaung Myat Hlaing, who's also known as Nat Soe).

"Unfortunately, without a free press or freedom of speech, we do not know how many political prisoners remain languishing in Burmese jails. We urge the international community to remember that without free expression, Burma can never be truly free," said ARTICLE 19.

Putting free expression issues in perspective.

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