Burma dissolves censorship office, but needs to do more for press freedom
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Burma dissolves censorship office, but needs to do more for press freedom

Burma (Myanmar) announced that it has dissolved the press censorship board which was officially known as Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), the state-run New Light of Myanmar said Friday. The termination of PSRD has been approved during Thursday’s cabinet meeting, the newspaper said.

“The division under the Printing and Publishing Enterprise has stopped functioning since 20 August, 2012 to pave ways for freedom of press,” according to the report. However, in place of PSRD, “Copyrights and Registration Division” will be shaped under the Information and Public Relations Department, NLM newspaper said.

Looking back through the past, the first 1947 constitution of Burma had promised citizens the right to enjoy freedom of expression and opinions. It made Burma the extraordinary status in South-East Asia region for embracing press freedom. During 1948-1962 period, the then Prime Minister U Nu’s government had no press censor board office similar to PSRD. Journalists and reporters were even allowed to enter the PM’s office and parliament without any limitation.

But after the 1962 military coup, press freedom had no place in Burma.  Many writers and journalists were thrown into infamous prisons under the emergency security act created by the then military junta. Over the last fifty years, Burmese writers and journalists have called the PSRD censorship office the media secret-police.

In the 1950s, Burma was at the vanguard of press freedom in Southeast Asia. The country had the benefit of a free press without a censorship office. As many as three dozen newspapers, including English and Chinese dailies, existed between 1948 and 1962 under the civilian government. Even the prime minister’s office was never closed to journalists in those days. They were also free to set up relations with international news agencies.

The situation changed in 1962, when the military seized power. All newspapers were nationalized by the then junta led by Gen. Ne Win. The junta established a Press Scrutiny Board to enforce strict censorship practices on all forms of printed matter, including advertisements and obituaries. ‘The Printers and Publishers Registration Law’ was introduced shortly after the 1962 military-coup that brought Gen Ne Win and his self-styled Socialist Party to power by force.

Since then, the military junta’s censorship and self-censorship have been commonplace, and have severely restricted political rights and civil liberties. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division is a major oppressive tool of the then military regime. Not surprisingly, Burma downgraded from a free state to a prison state. No printed matter could be published without the PSRD’s authorization. Photos, cassette tapes, movies and video footage also needed the censor’s stamp before reaching the people.

One recent remarkable event occurred on 1 August last year.  Ninety-two journalists from Myanmar Journalists’ Association (MJA), Myanmar Journalists’ Network (MJN) and Myanmar Journalists’ Union (MJU) held a meeting at the Royal Rose Garden in Yangon and released a press statement. A number of journalists wearing black T-shirts decorated with the catchphrase ‘STOP KILLING PRESS’ launched a demonstration in the former capital Rangoon protesting against the suspension of two journals – the Voice Weekly and the Envoy Journal.

In their press statement, the journalists declared that if the government endorsed a ‘Press Law’ without seeking advice from the stakeholders in the press, they would not accept any outcome concerning the new bill. Media watchdog groups have been urging the Burmese authorities to dump the unethical laws governing freedom of expression, especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and other oppressive laws.

In a time of democratic reform, the dissolution of the censor office is not enough. The government has  an obligation to amend the undemocratic clauses embedded in the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505-B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 2002 Wide Area Network Order and the 2004 Electronics Transactions Law. Without dumping those media oppressive laws, the press will not be free in Burma.

Burma is ranked 169th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.