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Although an electoral college chose Thein Sein, a retired general, in February 2011 as the country’s first nominally civilian president in nearly 50 years, the authorities continue to censor and crack down on dissidents and privately-owned media. Nonetheless, they seem to have decided to open up the political spectrum and dozens of political prisoners, including the comedian and blogger Zarganar, Myanmar Nation editor Win Maung and three DVB journalists were pardoned and released in October 2011.
The government gave contradictory signals during the November 2010 general elections. They were marked by censorship, arrests and harassment, but the print media were allowed to interview or quote the various candidates during the campaign. The recent prisoner releases and a partial lifting of censorship have caused uncertainty about the government’s real intentions.
The May 2011 announcement that print media would no longer have to submit articles about leisure, sport and other non-political subjects to the Press Scrutiny Board for approval prior to publication was a cosmetic and two-edged measure. It benefitted about 60 per cent of the country’s publications but prompted them to take more care with what they wrote, and to censor themselves, for fear of reprisals.
It seems unlikely that the prior censorship that affects most of Burma’s privately-owned publications is going to be lifted in the near future. This pre-publication censorship that is implemented by the Press Scrutiny Board, which is always headed by a military officer, is virtually unique in the world and continues to prevent any editorial independence.
The exile media continue to play a key role in providing the population with news and information, as Burma’s TV and radio stations and daily newspapers are still directly controlled by the government or the military. On average, censorship deprives a privately-owned magazine of a third of its content.
The “Free Burma VJ” campaign, which Democratic Voice of Burma launched in May 2011 and which Reporters Without Borders supports, highlights the great risks taken by the clandestine reporters who send news reports and video to DVB and other exile media. Fourteen DVB video journalists are still being held. Two more have been arrested since the start of 2010. One of them is Sithu Zeya, 21, who has been sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison for trying to shed light on the situation in Burma and on major developments, such a grenade attack in Rangoon in April 2019. The other is U Zeya, his father, who is serving a 13-year sentence for supervising DVB’s team of video journalists.
The international media that broadcast in the Burmese language (which include the BBC, RFA and VOA, as well as DVB), have never been allowed to operate freely inside Burma and access to their websites is now blocked more tightly than ever before. But the regular attacks on these media in the government press have stopped.
Foreign journalists rarely obtain press visas and have to enter the country on tourist visas with all the risks that these entail for their fixers and those who agree to be interviewed.
Despite the incipient conciliatory gestures towards the opposition, media freedom and online freedom of information are still flouted. The rules that the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs sent to Internet cafés in May 2011 are not enforced very much, according to Internet café owners, but they have not been rescinded. They include a ban on the use of portable hard disks, USB flash drives and CDs in Internet cafés, and a ban on the use of Internet telephony (VoIP) services to call abroad.
Although President Thein Sein promised to “respect the role of the media,” the heavy sentences recently imposed on bloggers and the police raids on Internet cafés highlight the regime’s inflexibility. The latest developments so far offer no guarantee that the government will carry out the deep-seated reforms that the country needs in order to enjoy greater freedom of expression. The coming weeks and works will shed more light on the government’s real intentions.
Updated in November 2011
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