Saturday, January 18, 2014

Burma: A long road to a free press


The 1962 military coup in Burma marked the beginning of what would become decades of censorship institutionalized in rules and regulations for the country's media. Content was required to be submitted for approval before publication, and the content of publications was highly controlled and regulated by the government.

Since 2011 however, the Southeast Asian nation has seen drastic changes in the government's attitude towards the media, which has placed the country in the midst of a challenging media reform. In a move towards increasing respect for freedom of expression, the Burmese government is instituting reforms aimed at reducing censorship for print, radio and television content, and increasing the accessibility of foreign media.

In August, 2012, the country's vice-like grip on the media began to loosen. President U Thein Sein had been in office for a year and a half when he announced the abolition of governmentally controlled media censorship - just over 48 years after the pre-publication checks began in August of 1964.

What does this mean for Burmese media? Most notably, independent news outlets are no longer required to submit their work to the country's censorship panel, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, for preapproval.

In the past, the extensive censorship process was so time consuming that independent media outlets were forced to limit their publications to a weekly or monthly basis. As such, the only operational daily newspapers were owned and operated by the Burmese government and represented a strictly uncritical view of the regime.

It's important to note that media haven't been granted complete freedom however, as they are still required to operate in accordance with strict press laws. Although the government has removed itself from the pre-publishing process, media outlets can still find their way into trouble if they produce work that authorities deem will undermine national security or public order.

In short, the burden of censorship now falls upon the media to police itself. While media are no longer subject to direct government scrutiny prior to the publication process, they are still operating under restrictions - albeit ones less severe than in previous years.

Despite the remaining challenges however, it is important to note that media reform has been a step towards strengthening the state of freedom of expression in Burma.

A notable example of improvement in the country is that Burmese media are now able to mention opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, of the National League for Democracy. Under house arrest in the Burmese capital of Rangoon for 15 years, she was finally released in November 2010. Until the 2012 shift in media regulations, any mention of Suu Kyi was taboo and rarely seen in Burmese media. Today however, Suu Kyi, her political and social ideas, and her presidential aspirations are frequently reported on throughout Burma.

The country's media reform has also extended to the digital realm, where several previously banned websites such as YouTube, the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Irrawaddy are now accessible. Public access to both Irrawaddy and the Democratic Voice of Burma was previously restricted due to their criticisms of the country's government and rulers.

The relaxed Internet restrictions only apply to certain topics, however. Pornography, and any content referring to drugs and alcohol, sex education, homosexuality, gambling, and searches for tools to circumvent Internet censorship are still widely restricted.

Access to the Internet itself in Burma is also extremely limited. Due to the high connectivity costs, it is estimated that less than 1 percent of the Burmese population has consistent, reliable access to the Internet. Among those who are online, language remains an additional barrier to foreign media, as content in local languages is limited, and few outside the nation's capital can read English.

In addition to the prohibitive costs and access issues, cyber cafés are also required by law to monitor the Internet usage of their customers and to provide police access to their records upon request. While many cafés aid their customers in circumventing Internet censorship with proxy servers, they are still required to install security cameras and display signs warning users of banned content.

When it comes to international media, foreign journalists are now being allowed to reenter Burma with special journalist visas - a significant shift, considering that these journalists were once forced to enter the country under tourist visas, sometimes adopting pseudonyms. The new visas allow them to stay and work in Burma for up to one year.

The Burmese government has also established media spokespeople for every ministry, giving journalists direct access to government contacts. Previously, if a government employee spoke with a journalist, who likely entered the country with a tourist visa, they would likely have been fired.

Still, many remain skeptical of the government's acceptance of possible criticism from foreign journalists. In February 2013, Thai journalists who had previously worked in and reported critically on Burma found the processing of their visas delayed by months. Local journalists working in Burma have also been concerned by the growing amount of cyberattacks on news websites and hacking of media workers email accounts.

The website of Weekly Eleven, the English-language arm of Burmese news outlet Eleven Media Group, was hacked in January 2013 after reporting on a military attack on an ethnic rebel group in rural Burma. A hacker group operating under the title of the Red Army took responsibility for the attack. This was the second attack on Weekly Eleven; the Kachin Cyber Army claimed responsibility for a December 2012 cyberattack.

While these groups are credited with the attacks on Weekly Eleven, it is worth noting that the Myanmar Express, a publication with pro-military leanings, released a prediction of the hackings hours before they occurred. The outlet's request for an official investigation into the attack never received a response from the President's office. Instead, an official in Burma's National Defense Council accused Than Htut Aung, founder and columnist of Weekly Eleven, of working undercover with the CIA.

Another local newspaper, The Voice, has also had its website hacked, and its editor also received warnings of email infiltration. This privacy violation extends across Burmese media. In February 2013, the New York Times reported on several journalists who received alerts from Google suggesting that "state-sponsored attackers" could have possibly infiltrated their email accounts. While some speculated that the hackings were targeted at Burmese media outlets that reported the military attacks on ethnic rebel groups, nothing has been confirmed.

Ma Khine, a reporter at Eleven Media Group, was sentenced to three months in prison in December 2013 for charges including the use of abusive language and defamation, marking the first time a journalist has been jailed since President Thein Sein pardoned 14 imprisoned journalists in 2012. Her imprisonment on such dubious charges highlights just how far Burma's media reform still has to develop.

The expansion of free expression in Burma is a work in progress. While some restrictions have been lifted, others remain steadfastly in place, and some Burmese journalists have expressed concern that the government is merely attempting to institute more subtle means of information control and censorship under the cover of reform. The Burmese government has been criticized for adopting these reforms in a bid to stave off an uprising similar to the Arab Spring.

Indeed, the demands of the 21st century are taking effect in Burma. But to what extent the country will continue to follow this course remains to be seen.

By Victoria Quiroz, a final-year journalism student at Humber College, Toronto. To see more of her work visit or follow her on Twitter: @nevervicky