Last month, press freedom in Burma suffered a setback when the government detained reporters and editors from the Unity Journal, a local publication that ran a story about an alleged secret chemical weapons plant in central Burma.
Instead of disproving the claims by allowing an inspection of the site, the government moved swiftly to arrest those who produced the report and charged them under the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act. In this, it behaved very much the way the former military junta would have done, in the days before Burma’s transition to quasi-civilian rule.
This move is just one of many signs that Burma’s vaunted media reforms are not as promising as they may seem. Even with a loosening of restrictions, there is still an air of uncertainty about how much freedom the government is willing to tolerate.
There are also concerns about the fact that the new Burmese media landscape is far from being a level playing field. Although there are a growing number of publications in circulation in the country, many are owned by cronies of the former regime or relatives of the ex-generals who now hold power. TV and radio stations are state-run or operated under close state control by well-connected business interests.
Earlier this week, Burma’s Parliament formally approved two new laws that are supposed to extend media freedom. At the same time, however, these laws leave media licensing in the hands of the Ministry of Information (MOI), which in recent weeks has shown that it is not afraid to use its powers to keep the media in check.
Since last month, the MOI has started denying three- to six-month journalist visas for foreign passport holders, including Burmese journalists with travel documents from foreign countries. At The Irrawaddy, several of our editors and reporters have been forced to leave the country to apply for shorter-term visas, with no guarantees that they would be allowed to return.
At no point did the MOI ever announce a policy change; its new rules seem to serve no other purpose than to remind media organizations of who’s in charge.
In the case of The Irrawaddy, the MOI’s interference has been even more blatant. Since the launch of our Burmese-language weekly at the start of the year, ministry officials have repeatedly contacted our editors in Rangoon to inform them that our name is too “colonial” for their tastes. Instead, they say, we should call ourselves “The Ayeyarwady,” in keeping with official spellings of Burmese place names imposed by the State Law and Order Restoration Council, the then ruling junta, in 1989.
This insistence that our name is ‘’inappropriate’’—the same name that we have used for more than 20 years and the name under which we are registered and trademarked— is absurd. If anybody in Burma has a colonial mindset, it is the country’s self-appointed rulers, who have forcibly Burmanized ethnic place names, in many cases making them unrecognizable to the ethnic inhabitants of towns and villages around the country. Thus Yawnghwe (meaning “valley with abundant paddy” in the Shan language) becomes Nyaung Shwe (“golden banyan”) in Burmese. (Other examples are far less poetic: “Mong, the Shan word for town, for instance, is rendered as “Mine,” meaning bomb in Burmese.)
When we asked the MOI to explain its objections in writing, it offered only the confused excuse that we couldn’t use “Irrawaddy” because it is the name of Burma’s largest river (as if we weren’t already aware of that fact). It also said that when we originally registered under “The Irrawaddy,” the MOI mistakenly approved our application because it had acted in haste.
It may sound like the main problem at the MOI is incompetence, but make no mistake— some officials there know what they’re doing. Even if low-level ministry apparatchiks appear to be at a complete loss to come up with convincing rationalizations for their bosses’ decisions, it is perfectly clear what some higher-ups want: to send a message that they’re still the ones calling the shots.
Since the launch of our weekly, we have also been contacted by the ministry about an illustration in our second issue that featured President Thein Sein—again, because it was deemed “inappropriate.” After that, The Mirror, a state-run daily in which we advertise our journal’s contents, said that it didn’t have space to run an ad for our third issue. Interestingly, officials at the newspaper suggested that we might have better luck next time if we “toned down” some of our more politically sensitive headlines, since all advertisements must have MOI approval before they can be published.
All of this serves as a timely reminder that Burma’s transition to democracy is far from complete, and may even be heading in reverse. As David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told the Irrawaddy: “Recent harassment of Burmese and international reporters over journalist visas marks a sinister backsliding in the much-touted media reform sector.”
He added that international donors and diplomats should be paying close attention to these developments, because “freedoms of the media are a key barometer of the sincerity of Thein Sein’s reforms, and the climate is decidedly cooler now. The Ministry of Information has to pull back from this spiteful harassment of journalists doing their jobs.”
Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, also said that the new visa restrictions sent a troubling signal that foreign news organizations were not entirely welcome in the country and would be subject to arbitrary penalties for critical news coverage.
“It appears authorities are reverting to the previous junta’s divide-and-rule tactic of rewarding news outlets that give generally favorable coverage to the government and punishing those that are more critical. We are particularly concerned that former exile-run media groups that have recently established bureaus in Burma and downsized their foreign operations are being targeted,” he said recently.
Since coming to power, President Thein Sein has made a point of talking about the importance of the media as the fourth pillar of society. In practice, however, his administration has shown a reluctance to ‘walk the talk,’ even if it hasn’t yet resorted to the same draconian measures as the previous regime to keep journalists in line. Instead, it seems to be applying more subtle forms of the psychological warfare that were the stock and trade of Burma’s defunct junta.
As Burma moves closer to crucial elections next year, we expect the pressure to grow. Already, we’ve been warned by a source within the MOI that some senior ministry officials are unhappy with our critical reporting.
No doubt we and other media will give them even more reasons to be upset with us in the coming months. That’s unfortunate, but with so much at stake, Burma’s journalists have to know that at this stage, we simply can’t afford to give in to officials who just want to show that when it comes to leaning on the media, they still haven’t lost their touch.
Aung Zaw is founder and editor of the Irrawaddy magazine, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.