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.’
The government has repeatedly made it clear that under the new system being considered—and widely tipped to be passed given recent prominent media coverage—editors will increasingly be in the firing line as responsibility shifts away from the censors.
‘Publishers and editors will need to decide themselves whether they are breaking the law or not when they publish,’ said Burma’s chief censor Tint Swe in an interview in The Myanmar Times, a privately-owned weekly. ‘If they break the laws, there are two ways to charge them. Call and remind the publisher or editors not to do it again, or file a lawsuit if the case is serious.’
But what exactly are the rules? In the past, the censorship board has decided to reject photographs of Burmese football crowds, for instance, on the basis they have sometimes too closely resembled groups of demonstrators. And aside from overtly negative political coverage, one of the big no-nos in Burma remains images of women deemed a little too sexy in what is a traditional, predominantly Buddhist country. Entertainment editors note censors sometimes insist straps be airbrushed onto strapless tops, while the acceptable length of female hem lines is usually a guessing game.
‘Entertainment journals are likely to have the most difficult time,’ said the editor, adding many have been suspended in the past.
For Burmese journalists and their publications, the penalties can be severe. Reporters Without Borders notes only China holds more journalists behind bars, ranking Burma 171st out of 175 countries in its 2010 press freedom index. Currently, 14 journalists languish in Burmese jails. When the government released Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi from seven and a half years of detention six days after last November’s election, nine journals were suspended for ‘excessive coverage.’ Hefty fines and editions pulled from newsstands means the costs can also be financial.
Still, many editors working within Burma’s media industry have said that after nearly half of century of rigid censorship, any relaxation of the strict rules would represent an improvement. The Rangoon-based editor estimated about 30 percent of a typical working week was taken up dealing with censorship, and with many weeklies seeking daily publishing licences, relaxed rules would make tighter deadlines more feasible. Only the New Light of Myanmar and its Burmese-language sister paper are currently permitted to print on a daily basis, but rumours in Rangoon suggest private journals may soon get the same opportunity.
On the spectrum of press freedom, these changes are all relative, says Benjamin Ismael on the Reporters Without Borders Asia Desk in Paris. Burma would move closer to a looser style of press restriction seen in other media industries in the region, he added, but in reality that means becoming more like China or Vietnam and less like the worst offenders such as North Korea.
‘China is in a way similar to Burma, but we could say that it is at a different stage, more advanced,’ says Ismael. ‘For now, we are looking at cosmetic reforms (in Burma).’
Steve Finch is a Phnom Penh-based freelance journalist. His articles have also appeared in The Washington Post, TIME.com, Foreign Policy, The Phnom Penh Post and The Bangkok Post.