In a week in which the world marked International Press Freedom Day and a campaign was launched for the release of DVB’s jailed journalists, we caught up with U Thar Ban, a veteran Burmese journalist and political activist for who spent 2 years in prison for his activism work and for helping a university student write about Burma’s student movement. He is also a former editor of the government-run newspaper, Kyemon Daily (The Mirror).
Will there be more press freedom in Burma with the new government?
From the Ne Win-led coup d’état in 1962 to Than Shwe’s military rule, there was no press freedom at all. If you ask whether there will be press freedom under the new president, Thein Sein, I’d say these people are of the same bean from the same basket. Although claiming to be a civilian government, they are retired army officials with their trousers off [now wearing traditional longyis], so they will not grant this [press] freedom. There may be a small amount of superficial freedom granted but I absolutely don’t believe that there will be press freedom.
There have been calls for the president to reform and allow freedom for the media. What do you feel about this?
The media is dubbed ‘the fourth pillar’ of society because it exists to point out mistakes, flaws and irrelevancies of the other three pillars: the judicial, executive and advisory powers. But the fourth pillar in our country had long collapsed in the hands of the military dictatorship. I don’t believe it will be put back up under the trousers-off [government]. I think they will continue their oppression from different angles.
What is your opinion on the first speech of President Thein Sein who remarked that there should be respect for the media?
It was very nice talking – very smooth indeed. But in practice, there is no press freedom up to today. The censor board still exists, as does a strict procedure [governing the media]. As long as this literature [oppression] exists, there will be no press freedom. To gain the press freedom, the [oppression] should be dissolved.
What do you make of the reporting of recent events such as the 2010 elections and the convening of parliament?
No foreign new correspondents or domestic reporters, including those from state-run newspapers, were allowed to go anywhere near the parliament building, let alone to cover the event. So how are we going to shape the fourth pillar under these situations?
Is domestic media adequately covering events inside and outside of Burma?
There is too much oppression on media freedom. Previously, there was restriction on domestic news coverage but now there is also on international news. We are not allowed to write about the situations in the Arab world, the democratic uprisings. They want to hide the fact that people in many countries are rising up against their rulers and fighting to end dictatorship.
And what about [Burmese] media based in foreign countries?
We have to rely on news from the internet and foreign outlets who broadcast back into the country as the media inside Burma is not allowed to report on what’s happening in the country. I believe the [exile] media is a necessary source of information for news audiences and those looking for information.
Nowadays, more youths are actively participating in media. Do you have any words for them?
Young journalists inside and outside the country work very hard, especially those from your organisation who take big risks and show little fear about getting arrested or imprisoned. I want to give them more credit and, as a journalist myself, am proud of them.