On a winding street in a wealthy suburb of Rangoon, the Orwellian-sounding Press Scrutiny and Registration Division quietly alters and deletes words, paragraphs and sometimes entire articles prior to publication in Burma’s 350 privately-owned newspapers, journals and magazines. It’s been that way during nearly 50 years of military rule in what ranks as one of the world’s most heavily restricted press environments.
But after a landslide (and widely-criticised) election win for a ruling party filled with former military men, Burma’s new government has offered strong indications it may at last relax the rules.
‘In Myanmar (Burma) there will be more freedom of press…in line with (the new) constitution,’ Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said in a speech in Rangoon reported in the state mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar on May 2.
His comments came after the country’s new President Thein Sein reportedly told his Cabinet at the end of March: ‘We have to respect the role of the media…we are required to inform the people about what they should know.’
Questions remain though as to how far the regime will actually go in easing restrictions, how these would work and whether Burma’s long-suffering press industry will be any freer as a result, even if the right to ‘publish freely’ is enshrined in the country’s 2008 Constitution.
Under proposed changes, coverage on mostly benign subjects, including sport and entertainment, would no longer have to pass through the office of the censor before hitting newsstands.
However, copies would have to be submitted after publication, while coverage on news and business would still be subject to the same censorship, a process that requires editors to ferry large quantities of copy back and forth to the scrutiny board late into the night on deadline day.
According to the Burma Media Association, an organisation of Burmese journalists in exile, that means about 40 percent of the country’s publications would still be subject to censorship, all of which print articles deemed the most sensitive by the government.
‘To be able to bypass the current censorship process is a step in the right direction, but it can’t be considered as a step towards press freedom,’ says BMA President Maung Maung Myint.
While the new rules would reduce the workload for many publications, journalists in Burma warn that these proposed changes would also present a new set of problems. Whereas editors currently work in an environment where they can try to push against the censorship board—if they are prepared to deal with rejected articles that must be replaced quickly before going to press—the new rules would mean the buck stops with the publication itself. That would undoubtedly lead to more self-censorship and a higher chance editors end up flouting largely unspoken rules on what can and can’t be published, said one editor in Rangoon.
‘To get suspended, they would have deliberately ignored the censorship board, and editors would have known the risks they were running,’ the editor said on condition of anonymity. ‘Now they will have to be guessing what is acceptable and what is not.’