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Every article published in Burma must first pass through the office of the country’s chief censor in Rangoon, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD). It’s been that way since Ne Win’s military government enacted the Printer’s and Publisher’s Registration law after seizing power in 1962.
But for the first time in nearly five decades, proposed amendments would mean a significant relaxation of how the censorship process works, according to recent comments by new President Thein Sein and the head of the PSRD Tint Swe. Although these changes are unlikely to bring Burma significantly closer to a fully free press, they are set to lead to profound changes in the country’s print industry. And whether these are positive or not will depend on the extent to which editors seize what is a rare opportunity in Burma.
Proposed changes which would mean coverage of issues including health, technology and entertainment no longer require pre-publication approval by the PSRD would almost certainly place greater onus on editors. This would move Burma closer to a more informal Chinese style of censorship with repercussions that are likely to be both positive and negative in terms of a freer press.
Like China, Burma has in theory enshrined press freedom in its new constitution. But in reality a system in which editors are held responsible for content – rather than a formal censorship board – means they also become liable for arrest, fines and the possible suspension or abolition of their publications when ill-defined rules are broken.
When the censorship board is ultimately responsible for content – the current system in Burma – it makes sense to push the envelope. But when responsibility shifts to the editor, taking chances with sensitive content raises the stakes, which in turn leads to hesitation among editors considering whether to print sensitive material, and thus promoting self-censorship. This is the main problem associated with the hybrid informal censorship style currently under consideration in Burma.
However, there are also benefits to proposed reforms that point to a more mature and possibly freer press, even if the new rules would not apply to business and political articles, the most sensitive coverage. However, the extent to which these materialise depends on the behaviour of editors at the micro-level.
Firstly, in a press environment renowned for sloppy fact-checking and sourcing such as Burma, publications will be forced to take responsibility for the material they print rather than hold the censor responsible for everything that is wrong with coverage. This should lead to greater vigilance when it comes to getting the facts right.
In terms of logistics, there are considerable advantages to the new system under consideration. If editors are no longer required to ferry large quantities of copy over to the PSRD office, they will have more time for sensitive stories. Many publications devote considerable man hours to the censorship process which could be freed up to push articles that challenge the system. Often Burmese publications feel they must only gamble on stories that have a good chance of passing the censorship process, otherwise they will be left with too many holes to fill on the page ahead of printing. The new system would create more time to fill these holes in practice and therefore a greater propensity to take risks with sensitive stories, but only if editors do not fall into the trap of self-censorship, as some inevitably would.
The other main advantage of a less bureaucratic, all-encompassing censorship process is that, in terms of logistics, weekly journals would be able to handle going daily, meaning they could compete on a level playing field with the only daily publication out there – the state-run propaganda organ, The New Light of Myanmar.
Under the current system in which all articles are required to go through censorship, dailies have been almost impossible given that deadline day means ferrying stories back and forth to the PSRD office long into the night. Under the proposed system, a lower volume of articles going through the censorship process would mean daily deadlines become much more manageable. This coincides with rumours circulating in Rangoon in recent years of the possibility of daily publication licenses for some weekly journals, including The Myanmar Times.
More private dailies and therefore a greater volume of local stories in Burma could only be positive for the press industry, which would have greater opportunities to make money and therefore train staff, make new hires and move towards a higher standard of journalism. But whether publications take advantage depends on editors prepared to ride the changes, show backbone in the face of new responsibilities and a willingness to make the most of additional time and space to publish sensitive stories that help get closer to the truth of what is happening in Burma.
In China, this more laissez-faire system of censorship has created a wider spectrum in terms of publications that tow the party line, or not. Out of the strict confines of the Cultural Revolution and the freer post-Tiananmen press environment, some publications have remained risk-averse, while others such as Southern Weekend in the city of Guangzhou have repeatedly tested the boundaries. As a result, they have published stories that Chinese readers would not have dreamed of seeing in print as recently as 15 years ago, the kind of articles that almost always fail to make it past the censors in Burma today.
The Burmese government is likely to congratulate itself for creating a less confined media environment, while cynics will no doubt point out that these reforms are anything but a move towards a freer press. But as ever, the reality is likely to lie somewhere in the middle, and prove much more complex.
Clive Parker has worked as a journalist at The Myanmar Times and The Irrawaddy.