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In keeping with a turbulent recent history, Burma’s media sector is again being subjected to the whims of the country’s PR-savvy ringmasters. Exiled journalists long seen as enemies of the state are being tempted back in by nominal openings, but their security remains questionable – the environment they will operate in has become something of a testing ground for the quality of reforms initiated by the government, which promising as they might be, contain substantial shortcomings. The protracted deliberations over a law being piped as the harbinger of a new dawn for press freedom shows that the same anxieties that catalysed nearly half a century of watertight censorship persist, and with that, the risks faced by independent journalists remain.
But the message from media groups – both domestic and exiled – who gathered in Rangoon this week was clear: President Thein Sein, the man being excitedly billed as Burma’s own Mikhail Gorbachev, cannot expect to continue to tread the red carpet of international endorsement unless independent journalism stops being criminalised. What they pointed out – and which the president’s newfound admirers appear to have ignored – is that the recent relaxation of censorship laws means little unless reporters are free to do their jobs. In short, the ability of publications to bypass the redactors is not a guarantee that journalists are safe.
Where this becomes apparent is in the conditions attached to a number of journalists released from jail in January this year. Twenty-one year old Sithu Zeya, a young and skilled DVB reporter, will return to prison and see out the remaining 18 years of his sentence if in the future he breaches any of Burma’s wildly arbitrary laws. “[It’s] like they’ve let me out with a leash still attached to my neck,” he said upon his release two months ago, having already spent nearly two years behind bars for pointing a camera where it isn’t welcome.
That he and a number of other journalists were freed is promising – few would refute that – but the environment for media remains precarious. “It is important that the media law in Burma/Myanmar should not only focus on freedom of the press and freedom of expression, but also constitute a safeguard for the security and rights of members of the media community,” said a joint statement by exiled media groups following the Rangoon conference.
As it stands, the same laws that were freely wielded by the former junta to snuff out criticism and cast opacity over the country remain, with the uploading of sensitive material to the internet or the sending of footage to exiled outlets still punishable by lengthy jail terms. Whether the laws would actually be deployed now, amid attempts by the government to attract democratic credibility, is questionable, but until a guarantee is given that journalists will not be arrested, excitement at the small steps taken toward media freedom should be tempered.
The same caution should meet the decision to allow exiled DVB reporters visas to work in the country – many in Burma’s diaspora who work in media have backgrounds in activism (the senior ranks of DVB and the Irrawaddy include former organisers of the 1988 uprising, some of whom then fled to the jungle to work with armed student groups) and face possible punishment for that, rather than their media work, should they return to Burma and push the limits of press freedom.The same laws that were freely wielded by the former junta to snuff out criticism and cast opacity over the country remain
There is also the age-old issue of power struggles in Burma’s government. Some cabinet figures are known to be less happy about the manoeuvring of the so-called ‘moderates’, such as Thein Sein and Railway Minister Aung Min, who has spearheaded ceasefire talks with ethnic armies. As everyone from the US government to Aung San Suu Kyi has warned, these reforms can easily (and legally, according to the constitution) be rolled back should they pose a challenge to the country’s elite.
Information Minister Kyaw Hsan, who will largely dictate the evolution of media in Burma in the coming years, is one of these – something of a bullish personality (self-described as “a pragmatist whose priority is [to] have rules and regulations”), he does not share the enthusiasm for the rapid, albeit selective, developments seen over the past nine months. It is he who has resisted the calls for exiled media groups to be allowed to set up bureaus inside the country, despite Aung Min reportedly backing the idea, and it is likely him that is stalling over the enactment of the new media law. He told The Irrawaddy this week that new regulations would enable all media outlets inside Burma to enjoy “100 percent press freedom,” but that they would “have to abide by the law”. Until we know the exact detail of that law – whether it will conform to democratic norms, or whether it is merely ‘better than before’ (hardly cause for celebration or complacency) – then scepticism of the reforms must remain.
Trepidation about the return of exiled media to Burma stems largely from the diaspora’s unyielding pressure on the government amid a sea of praise, and for this they have faced criticism: an increasingly vocal faction (often those breathlessly championing Thein Sein’s programme) believes they are encamped in an overly idealistic enclave, and that their lengthy remove from the country puts them out of touch with a changing reality. Hard as it may be to swallow, there is a degree of truth in this, particularly the latter. The challenge now is to readjust and find a place in an environment where exiled media’s unique selling points – namely access and a street-wise ability to navigate the unpredictable terrain in Burma – are becoming less unique.
What those media figures who descended on Rangoon this week still hold however is an adept (and for many a painfully personal) knowledge of how these figures in government operate – their practised trickery and the ability to play suitors off against one another for their own gain. Casting Thein Sein as a man who has undergone an epiphany and now empathises with a populace which for years he has treated with absolute apathy is not a trap of naivety they would fall into, and because of this they will remain in the crosshairs of the new government. Until the new media environment is given its ultimate test – namely allowing the regime’s most hardened critics to wield the pen freely – then the struggle for real press freedom must continue.