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Press freedom in Burma remains severely curtailed despite the government’s ostensible efforts to lift censorship, according to a group of leading media watchdogs.
Censorship is still engrained in Burma’s judicial system and the military retains overall control of the media, according to the International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX).
“President Thein Sein’s commitment to greater press freedom is still more rhetoric than reality,” said a spokespersons for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
For example, the Electronics Act enforces jail terms for people who send unauthorised information over the internet, while the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) must approve all press, television, radio and cinema content before it’s published.
Progress on the much-hyped new media law has been excruciatingly slow and its provisions remain undisclosed to the public. CPJ speculates that it will merely employ different tools of suppression “similar to the legal restrictions on the press in neighbouring countries like Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam.”
The Information Minister Kyaw Hsan has insisted they “are not drafting the new media law with the intention of banning or hampering press freedom.” But critics have been quick to observe that heavy restrictions are still in place.
Broadcasting regulations remain particularly tight and it is one of the reasons that DVB faces difficulties in setting up an office in Rangoon. Although the government has pledged to redraft these regulations, there have been no significant developments to date as speculation grows that Kyaw Hsan is stalling.
Although the government was applauded for welcoming international journalists into Burma for the by-elections, the media could not operate freely.
“Ahead of the elections, the PSRD issued a list of “Do’s and don’ts for the media covering the by-elections”, reported the International Press Institute (IPI). This included a ban on taking photographs or conducting interview within 500 metres of a polling station.
Aung San Suu Kyi herself complained about having one of her first state-broadcast speech partly censored for breaching laws concerning military criticism.
There is also a substantial gap between policy and practice. Free speech is in fact enshrined in the 2008 constitution, but it has not prevented the military from implementing heavy censorship over the past four years.
Leading dissident writer Soe Thein recently warned: “In our coverage of recent peace talks and ceasefire agreements with ethnic groups opposed to the government, we are only allowed to cover the government side. We are not allowed to quote anyone from the ethnic rebel side like the Kachin Independence Organization”.
A recent report by the International Media Support also found that Burma’s censorship board still orders the removal of nearly one quarter of all content related to current affairs.
Reporters Without Border has continued to warn that at least five of the remaining political prisoners in Burma are journalists and bloggers – identified as Zaw Tun, Win Saing, Ne Min, Aung Htun and Kaung Myat Hlaing, who’s also known as Nat Soe.
DVB journalist Sithu Zeya, who was released in the January amnesty, was pardoned only on the condition that he doesn’t breach any of Burma’s other restrictive laws. “[It’s] like they’ve let me out with a leash still attached to my neck,” he told DVB in January.