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A new US law signed this week that will single out governments that restrict press freedom will have little impact on Burma, media workers inside the country have said.
President Obama on Monday ratified a bill that requires the state department to compile a public list of governments which violate journalistic freedoms. It was passed in honour of US journalist Daniel Pearl, who was killed in Pakistan in 2002 whilst on assignment with The Wall Street Journal.
But journalists in Burma, a country that consistently ranks at the tail-end of press freedom indexes, say that outside pressure on the country’s military rulers to lift draconian media restrictions rarely has an impact.
“[Press freedom] only depends on the politics that dominates the country; if [the junta’s] politics is likely to be affected in a big way, they will continue to hold onto the status quo… there is not much hope for that,” said an editor from a Burmese news journal, speaking to DVB on condition of anonymity.
The vice-chairman of the Thailand-based Burma Media Association (BMA), Zin Lin, added that the intransigence of the Burmese junta, which has ruled the country in various forms since 1962 and introduced some of the world’s harshest media laws, made the US bill merely symbolic.
“The international community can warn and denounce them [the generals], and can give journalists inside Burma awards as a way of encouraging them, but as long as you can’t change the military machinery [or] remove the press scrutiny board, the prospect of press freedom in Burma remains distant.”
Around 15 journalists are currently behind bars in Burma, including DVB reporters Hla Hla Win, Win Zaw and Ngwe Soe Lin. Hla Hla Win was handed a 35-year sentence last year after recording interviews with monks, while Ngwe Soe Lin had filmed footage for the award-winning Channel 4 documentary ‘Orphan’s of Burma’s Cyclone’, and was given 13 years.
Burma last year ranked 171 out of 175 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index, above Turkmenistan, Eritrea, North Korea and Iran.
Obama told AFP that the new law “sends a strong message from the US government and the state department that we’re paying attention on how foreign governments are operating when it comes to the press.”
But recent attempts by the US to nudge the ruling junta towards democratic transition appear to have been ignored by the generals, who are gearing up for elections this year that look set to entrench military rule.
Another newspaper editor told DVB that the lack of success by the US, including a recent visit by senior envoy Kurt Campbell, showed that “nothing has changed” in the country.
“What is happening now is that reporters can’t do anything here. When they go into the field where something serious has happened, they get arrested,” he said. “Nothing has changed. You will see that the situation only gets worse.”