Myanmar's Halting Steps toward Press Reform

Independent newspapers are set resume publishing on April 1 in Myanmar for the first time since they were banned five decades ago. Today there are four state-owned dailies.

Sixteen papers* have received "Temporary licenses" from the Information Ministry "after scrutiny." The licenses are ‘temporary' pending a new media law which was supposed to have been passed prior to the approval of the new papers. The licenses would presumably be ratified once the new media law is finally in place.

This burst of newspaper license approvals comes after a rash attempt by the minister of information to rush his own version of a media bill through parliament before the applications were approved. That maneuver was foiled by street demonstrations of outraged journalists and civic society activists who sent letters to individual lawmakers demanding that they reject the bill.

The need to face the electorate in 2015 may have persuaded the legislators to heed the public outcry. The debate on the bill has been deferred to the June sitting of parliament. Legislators didn't share the information minister's urgency to pass the media bill by end-March.

Minister Tries to Bypass Press Council

The press council, a body of government nominees, journalists, publishers and printers representatives set up by President Thein Sein himself, was tasked with drafting the new media law "to international benchmarks". Their work is not finished yet. The information minister blind-sided the council in submitting his media bill to parliament. Government members of the press council were offended by the minister's dash and joined journalists in chastising him. The information minister's justification for his now aborted pre-emptive action was that after censorship was abolished mid-2012, many "poisonous" publications have appeared.

Transgressions allegedly included saucy female photographs "contrary to Myanmar's cultural norms" and articles "encouraging gambling" which moral guardians of the State-appointed Buddhist organization objected to.

He didn't mention an article on corrupt practices at the ministry of mining which prompted its sputtering minister to threaten a defamation lawsuit (a la Singapore) against the journal which exposed it. This is exactly the kind of press disclosure which panics the generals long used to working their turf without impediment.

Toby Mendel, executive director for the Canada-based Centre for Law and Democracy, released a statement saying that consideration should be given to doing away entirely with the system of registration for publishers, printers, news agencies and imported publications, and that if registrations is retained, it should be limited in scope, and any restrictions on content should be in line with international standards, with the Ministry of Information playing no role in applying the rules.

Is free press too risky for the regime?

The horror of an unfettered private press prying into the fiefdoms of generals may well have triggered the scramble to lock into place all the old ways of muzzling journalists and frightening publishers, printers and distributors.

A press not subservient to the power structure holds dangers for a regime navigating a transition to nominal civilian administration without surrendering military privileges and entitlements. For 60 years news was what the regime scripted out for press and TV to deliver without question. Weaning the regime off that self-serving diet of managed mass media is a challenge. There is considerable skepticism among the Myanmar intelligentsia about the regime's democratic reforms. The suspicion is that all the right noises are being made to lull American and European governments into relaxing sanctions for foreign investment to kick-start the stagnant Myanmar economy. And to take regime generals off their visa blacklists as they and their proxies position for local-partner status to leverage the incoming corporate investors. The military monopolizes business and is well set to profit from inward investment flows.

The Lady has gone quiet too

President Thein Sein's bold break with earlier policy to free Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and to allow her and her National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest by-elections in 2012 had the desired impact on foreign governments.

Suu Kyi was allowed to receive her Nobel Prize and tour the world. She obliged by not condemning the regime. She pledged to work with the army-dominated government for the good of Myanmar society. The president co-opted her onto several government panels. She declares belief in ‘restorative justice' rather than exacting revenge for past sins.

For all of her human rights credentials, Suu Kyi has been deafeningly silent on the continuing organized violence targeting Muslims and the systematic bombing of Kachin State, which has been subjected to sustained military action close to the Chinese border.

The Kachins had refused to participate in the regime's last general elections. The state is rich in mineral deposits and has large dams with hydroelectric power generation potential. Gas and oil pipelines also run through the state into China. The Kachins are also largely Christian in a country which is predominantly Buddhist.

Daw Suu Kyi has also been silent on a 2008 constitutional provision which denies her the chance to become president if her party gains a majority in the scheduled 2015 general election. It bars anyone from the position whose spouse, child or parent holds foreign citizenship. That provision was clearly written with her in mind.

At the recent National League for Democracy party assembly, there was considerable dissension in the ranks as a new generation of party activists challenged an old guard which is reluctant to make way. There is also resentment at the 15 member party politburo that Suu Kyi had picked, exercising considerable influence to have it her way. While there is much awe and admiration for Suu Kyi across the nation, her younger party activists are not quite sure what she stands for.

*The 16 newspapers to have received temporary licenses are Khit Moe, Shwe Naing Thit, Union, Empire, Messenger, Up-Date, Myanmar Newsweek, Mizzima, Eleven, San Taw Chein, Kit Thit, Yangon Times, Myanmar Dikai, Union Athan, 7-Daily and D-Wave (opposition NLD paper)