A death knell for Burma’s press freedom, or a step forward?
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A death knell for Burma’s press freedom, or a step forward?

Burma’s new censorship guidelines have been pitched as yet another step forward in the country’s reform, yet they contain rulings that are absolutely antithetical to the notion of democracy, the destination Burma is supposedly heading for – indeed they are a hindrance.

At least half of the 16 clauses set about to stifle dissent – state policy “shall not be negatively criticised”, one reads. For all the hypocrisies and malleability that accompany use of the term, a ‘democracy’ is essentially open to divergent opinions – indeed that is how one is created and maintained. Disposing of this cornerstone is the first sign that dictatorial tendencies are emerging, despite the government claiming to be closing the door on that period.

The silencing of reportage on malpractices widely associated with the Burmese government is hidden behind the veil of alleged concerns over legitimacy: “Unless the source is reliable, matters relating to corruption, illicit drugs manufacturing and trading, forced labour, human trafficking, child soldiers, etc. shall not be reported.”

It will ultimately be the government who decides the credibility of the source; the same government that has spent years attempting to discredit the findings of Human Rights Watch et al and imprisoning local human rights monitors. President Thein Sein’s administration is right to demand proper conduct in reporting, but it is the wrong body to be determining the nature of that conduct.

It even goes so far as to ban criticism of the government’s economic policy, which absolutely demands debate given its track record in that department. The realm of economic policy stretches out to the impacts of foreign investment, for example, which is set to grow in the coming years and, unless closely monitored (as well as criticised), could easily be a repeat of a very destructive history.  The government however knows the fragile nature of the Burma’s economic future, and indeed its past – the uprisings of 1988 and 2007 were essentially protests against woeful economic decisions, and any repeat of this during the fragile transitional period would be very unsettling for the government and its allied elites who hold tremendous personal wealth.

In many senses it is good that editors no longer have to check everything with the censor board prior to printing – it will speed the process up, and for the first time in decades, allow news to be what it should be. The new rules are not wholly negative, nor do they outwardly bar journalists from highlighting more benign malpractices that still would’ve been unthinkable a year ago. There is also the newfound ability of non-state media to operate openly in Burma.

Thomas Kean, editor of the English-language edition of The Myanmar Times, wrote in an email: “One thing I think people are overlooking is that, from an editor’s perspective, this is just going to make life a lot easier and we’ll be able to focus more energy on our output rather than wasting time with backup articles, censorship board deadlines, pages and pages of printouts, changing articles just before publication and so on. We’ll be able to better use the resources we have, which will have some benefits on the quality of the end product.”

Yet with this kind of self-censorship being required of journalists anyway, the censor board is made effectively redundant and a constricted media sphere hidden behind the veneer of tentative press freedom is set to be cemented well into the future.

It’s refreshing to know however that Burma’s rulers haven’t lost their penchant for the far-fetched that kept us skimming through the New Light of Myanmar year after year in search of Than Shwe’s latest hat trick of holes-in-one or phantom hospital patients. One clause in the censorship rulings reads: “In stories of mystery like ghosts, barren land demons [a type of spirit in Burmese lore], desiccated foetus and treasure trove history, illogical things that may mislead children shall not be written,” reads one ruling on the list of censorship rules. Let’s not forget that senior members of the Thein Sein administration, notably the man himself, have held posts in previous governments that relied on the supernatural to guide key areas of policy.