Freedom of the Press
Tentative openings in the general political environment—including parliamentary elections held in November 2010, the emergence of a functioning legislature and nominally civilian government, the election of former general Thein Sein as president in March 2011, and increased space for political parties to operate—also led to changes in the media landscape in Burma during 2011. Positive developments included the release of imprisoned bloggers, a softening of official censorship, fewer reports of harassment and attacks against journalists, and an increase in the number of private media outlets, which led to somewhat more diversity of content and less self-censorship. In addition, a number of exiled journalists were able to return to the country. But despite greater journalistic freedom and access to news and information, Burma remained one of the most repressive countries in Asia.
The 2008 Burmese constitution provides for freedom of expression and of the press, but these rights are not respected in practice, and many draconian laws still stand as impediments to media freedom. The 2004 Electronics Transactions Law prohibits any individual or group from sending electronically information regarding government issues, national security, or any message of a cultural or economic nature. In addition, Section 22 of the Penal Code of Burma 1957 outlaws criticism of the government or state in any media publication or broadcast. In the second half of 2011, the Burmese media began reporting on a purported draft of a new media law being readied by the government. By all accounts, the law remains “problematic.” As written, it suggests the state would allow greater tolerance for private media, but it would not necessarily give up its control of all forms of mass media. The Ministry of Information only issues licenses to private publishers if they print government-approved material exclusively, and the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department can suspend licenses of publications that print objectionable material. Publications regularly face suspension if they run afoul of the authorities.
While there was some improvement in the extent of official censorship, the majority of private periodicals remain subject to prepublication censorship under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, which requires that all content be approved by the authorities. Under censorship rules announced in 2005, media outlets are allowed to offer “constructive” criticism of government projects and report on sensitive issues such as natural disasters and poverty, provided the coverage does not affect the national interest. In March 2011, the authorities announced that censorship policies would be relaxed when the new government took office. This change took effect in June when 178 journals and magazines—mostly those that cover subjects including sports, health, children, and technology—were given permission to publish without prior approval, though the censorship board issued warnings to some newspapers and magazines because they were thought to have published culturally inappropriate material. Nevertheless, an attempt by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi to publish an article in August faced potential cuts by the censorship board, and it was withdrawn.
Though self-censorship remains widespread, the Burmese press continued to push the envelope in 2011. As well as covering social issues such as health, education, and the environment, some media outlets became increasingly assertive in their coverage of political news, addressing topics that have in the past been considered off limits, including the activities of Suu Kyi and the conduct of the new parliament. Throughout the year, foreign embassies and international media development organizations hosted training sessions, seminars, and forums. Foreign journalists also found it much easier to obtain entry visas. In addition, given the changes in the country, several exiled media organizations sent representatives back home to explore the possibility of reopening media outlets based in Burma. A number of prominent media groups also found that government officials have been more accessible than in the past.
Despite fewer reports of harassment and attacks, instances of retribution against journalists remained a problem in 2011. Before the new government took office, a local video journalist was sentenced in February to 13 years in prison for violating the Electronics Act. The year did see the release of a number of journalists from prison, including five reporters in May. In October, Maung Thura, a blogger and comedian popularly known as Zarganar, was released from prison along with dozens of other political prisoners. He had originally been sentenced in 2008 to 59 years behind bars for violating the Electronics Transactions Law by publicly castigating the military regime for their delayed response to Cyclone Nargis, which claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), even after the release of Maung, Burma remained the fourth-worst jailer of journalists in the world, with 12 still behind bars at year’s end.
Media concentration remains high, even though a number of formerly exiled media organizations have begun opening outlets in the country. The government owns or controls all domestic broadcast media and daily newspapers, and exercises tight control over a growing number of privately owned weekly and monthly publications. In February 2011, the government took control of the Myanmar Times and arrested its Australian editor and part-owner, Ross Dunkley, who was first charged with immigration violations but was later accused of attacking and drugging a supposed prostitute. However, the charges came amid a series of disputes among the owners of the paper; Dunkley also had a history of tense relations with the Burmese authorities due to the paper’s coverage of certain topics.
Authorities restrict the importation of foreign news periodicals. Due to high levels of poverty and illiteracy, as well as poor infrastructure and distribution networks, print media are accessible mainly in urban areas and broadcast outlets are the main source of news for most citizens. Although some people have access to international shortwave radio or satellite television, those caught accessing foreign broadcasts can be arrested. Nevertheless, as the only source of uncensored information, foreign radio programs produced by the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Asia, and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are very popular. The monthly subscription fees to access satellite channels are high, so most Burmese viewers install the receivers illegally.
Access to the internet is expensive, tightly regulated, and censored, with the government controlling all of the several dozen domestic internet service providers. In addition to the poor infrastructure in the country, these factors mean that only 1 percent of the population accessed the internet in 2011. While there are no existing laws on monitoring internet communication, the government tracks internet activity and blocks certain websites, including some foreign news sources and foreign-hosted email services. However, in September, Reporters Without Borders confirmed that access to a number of previously banned foreign news websites—including the British Broadcasting Corporation, Reuters, the Bangkok Post, the Straits Times, Radio Free Asia, Irrawaddy, DVB, and the VOA Burmese service—had been unblocked, although internet connections continued to be very slow. In addition, a range of e-mail, blog, and social-media sites, including Gmail, Facebook, and YouTube, were unblocked. The government also remains wary of mobile communications. SIM cards for mobile phones in Burma remain the most expensive in Asia, and complicated schemes for pre- and post-paid services make short-message service (SMS) either out of reach or politically risky for those Burmese who sought to use them as another platform for news, information, or mobilization.