Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Promise of Media Freedom in Burma

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Photo: Banyar Kong Janoi
Download Burma’s president this week pledged to establish a "healthy democracy". He made the comments during a visit to Singapore where he asked for help to modernise the country's economy.

One area that is under going rapid change in Burma is press freedom.  The government is easing restrictions on the press and is in the process of drafting a new media law.

Recently a group of government officials, journalists and members of civil society gathered in Hong Kong to discuss the transition from a military dictatorship to a democracy.

Banyar Kong Janoi went to speak with some of the delegates about media reform in Burma.

For the first time in years or decades people in Burma can now freely surf websites from exile media groups such as the Democratic Voice of Burma…they can also check-out the BBC and CNN sites.

And newspapers are now allowed to publish photographs and reports about the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

These are things that would have been unthinkable just one year ago.

Ma Myint Su works with civil society groups in Rangoon.

“We have seen many developments but in my opinion, I would say this is relaxation; it is not a real change yet. Some things are easier than in previous years but we still need permission from local authority to do things.”

Burma is said to have the world's most heavily censored media.

More than 50 journalists have been put in jail for their work in the past ten years.

But last October the head of Burma's powerful press censorship department called for greater media freedom in the country.

Tint Swe said censorship was incompatible with democratic practices and should be abolished in the near future.

Now the government is holding workshops on the role of media in a democratic society with Burmese journalists and exile media such the BBC and Voice of America Burmese services and the Mizzima News Agency.

The government also says they are in the process of drafting a new media law.

U Ye Htut is a spokesman for the Burmese government.

“The ministry of information has drafted it. Now, the attorney generals office is reviewing the draft. If the attorney general gives it his approval, we will send it to the parliament. To achieve a democratic society, we will create the new law freely and openly under the constitution. According to the president’s speech, if we are moving towards a democratic country we need the media to play a role as the fourth estate. Therefore the media should not only have freedom but they should also take on responsibility. That’s why we are drafting a media law which grants freedom but also makes the media responsible for the betterment of our society.” 

By ‘responsible’ he says the media must be fair and balanced.

In the past, journalists have been arrested and jailed for charges under the electronic act.

“The electronic is not under our control. It’s under the ministry of Communication, Posts and Telegraphs. However, I understand they are also reviewing this law and thinking about amending it because we have to amend all laws which contridict our new constitution.”

But changes to the electronic act and the media law are being done behind closed doors. Information about the details of the new laws have not been released.

But U Soe Thein a Rangoon-based editor from Thought & Vision Magazine says some parliamentarians have approached him for his input.

“They came and ask our opinion about what the media law show be like but the actual drafting committee, the information ministry, has never consult with us. I think what will happen is after drafting the law the upper house and lower house will read the law and compare it to our opinions and demands and then will make a decision whether to pass it or not.”

He says at the moment the situation is far from free and fair.

“Compared to era before the new government came to power now is a lot more relaxed but we still have to have everything approved by the censorship board before publishing. Some times, our stories are edited and some are cut altogether. So as long as that censorship is imposed on us we don’t have  a free press in Burma.”

A Burmese student in Hong Kong who wants to stay anonymous says it is too soon to say if Burma is changing.

“The government officials say they have changed but they are very clever at selecting the right words. I am not sure whether their words will transform into action. We have to wait and see if the upcoming by-election and next term election will be free and fair.”

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