A wave of new censorship ruless, unprecedented in their severity, were today introduced in Burma as a first step in the government’s quest to control news flows in the build-up to elections this year.
A ‘news branch’ has been set up within the government’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), led by a lieutenant within the Burmese army, Myo Myint Aung. The laws become active today.
Rangoon-based journalists told DVB that the new unit, made up of 12 members, will look to fill existing loopholes in current press laws in Burma, which are already among the strictest in the world. In March, the Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Sans Frontieres (RSF) ranked Burma one of 12 “enemies of the internet”, while the pariah state consistently ranks at the tail-end of global media freedom indexes.
“Even with last-minute news, we have to go through the censor board first before publishing. Now, even when we [request] permission, the board will allow only two pages and states that there shouldn’t be any political news,” said a journal news editor.
He added that the censor board will standardise levels of censorship across all publications, meaning that some newspapers and journals which had been able to operate comparatively freely will be subject to uniform laws.
Some publications however have had to stop publication altogether after the censor board stripped them of the majority of their content. The nationwide Monitor Journal last week submitted a 20-page draft to the censor board, which then rejected 12 pages, forcing it to cancel that week’s issue.
“The censorship is getting stricter this month, worse than before,” said the editor, adding that the country was returning to the days of Major Aye Tun, who resided over the censor board and was the architect of some of the junta’s most draconian media laws.
Different publications are also being favoured by the board’s two directors, the editor said. “The new director is from the navy and he has no literature background. He only views things from the military angle and only prioritises the government agenda. Major Tint Swe, on the other hand, likes to take risks.
“[Tint Swe] only approves material of those whom he gets along with. So the more privilege one gets from [the director], the more material one can get approved and attract public interest.”
If a little more responsibility was taken by those in charge of the censor board, then life would be easier for journalist, another news editor said. “It’s okay for them to censor, but the problem is that the last person to run through the material [before approving] usually doesn’t want to take responsibility [for the final edit].”
Now however the director is less likely to take the decision and instead “will just bluntly turn down the approval”, the editor said. “I think now we are heading far from the day when could publish articles about politics, news and opinions,”
There is now a feeling among Rangoon journalists that media in the country will soon lose all rights and independence, while advocacy groups such as the exiled Burma Media Association will steadily become less able to lobby and negotiate.