Free Speech in Burma: How long will it last?

“The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech”, said Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, right after she was released from nearly 20 years of house arrest. In Burma neither freedom of speech or the press are guaranteed by law. Every publication has to be approved by the Ministry of Information. Now we can see some slow changes towards democracy in Burma. But how profound are they? The Burmese journalist and founder of the newspaper Irrawaddy, Aung Zaw, tries to answer this question.    

April 17 2012 Text: Aung Zaw

“The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech”, said Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010, right after she was released from the nearly 20 years of house arrest. In Burma neither freedom of speech or the press are guaranteed by law. Every publication has to be approved by the Ministry of Information. Now we can slowly see some changes towards democracy in Burma. But how profound are they? The Burmese journalist and founder of the newspaper Irawaddy, Aung Zaw, tries to answer this question.    

In February, I have a chance to visit my own country (Burma/Myanmar) after living in exile for 24 years. The government granted me a journalist visa.

Since I arrived at the airport, people would come up to me and suddenly start talking about political situation and reform process in the country. In markets and in the streets people whom I spoke to have less fear but are more outspoken. But I also feel that many Burmese remained politically cynical and remained wary of what would happen next after they have lived under brutal military dictatorship for decades.

In Rangoon, Burma’s former capital, I met editors, writers and bloggers and I also held several meetings with officials from Burma’s notorious press censorship board—operates under Ministry of Information.

My first impression is that local journals—though censorship board remained very active—could report on rising commodity prices and low level corruption. This is good news since Burma in the past had a well-earned reputation as “an enemy of the press”—but it is still a long way to go when we can safely say that the country really enjoys free press and free speech. 

Indeed, many sensitive issues such as widespread human rights abuses committed in ethnic regions, the issue of federalism, investigative reporting on military budget, widespread corruption in senior government level and in the military and business of military cronies are not allowed to cover.

During my meeting with Tint Swe, the Deputy Director General at the Ministry of Information, we quickly jumped into a discussion about the changing media landscape, the draft media law and many other issues surrounding media development in Burma.

It was a bit of a surreal experience, since I usually derided the press censorship board in my publication. And yet, there I was, sitting and speaking with a senior censorship official in his office—in a building known to most Burmese writers as the headquarters of the “literary Kempeitai,” because it had been used during WWII by the Kempeitai, Japan's notorious wartime military police force.

If exiled media group such as The Irrawaddy wanted to publish a publication inside Burma, we have to go through censorship board. Tint Swe said, “We are retreating slowly,” I wonder how slow it will be and I can see that the government wanted to maintain certain degree of control over media freedom and free speech. Burma isn’t free yet. Not yet.

In new capital known as Naypyidaw in central Burma, I had a meeting with Ye Htut, Director General of Ministry of Information—he emphasized responsible and free press but didn’t say when the censorship board is going to be abolished but said that if media law is introduced in Burma, censorship is no longer needed.

In an interview with Radio Free Asia this year, Tint Swe said that a new law that will “guarantee freedom of expression in Burma” has already been drafted, but isn't likely to be passed during the current session of Parliament.

Burma is now drafting media law but the irony is editors and journalists have been kept in the dark as they have little clue about the law. They were not invited to draft the law. I also gathered that the government’s draft media law focused only on print media and doesn’t include broadcast media and on-line media.

“Once it’s adopted, the censorship department will be abolished,” Tint Swe said. But no one is really convinced. In January, he summoned editors to his office to remind them that they still have to follow the board's rules until a new media law is enacted. If editors cannot follow censors, they will face suspension of journals.

Critics are concerned that the media law is going to be rigid. If that is the case, journals are going to exercise extreme self-censorship. Burma will remain a censored land.

President Thein Sein who was a former general and came into power through controversial election in 2010 told a journalist from Washington Post in January: “With regards to freedom of the media, you can see that it is not like it was before.”

“The media needs to take responsibility … Media freedom will be based on the accountability they have,” he said. The president himself is bookworm and his office is known to be interested in public opinion and closely follow weekly journals.

A new constitution in 2008 stated: “Every citizen shall be at liberty in the exercise of the following rights, if not contrary to the laws, enacted for Union security, prevalence of law and order, community peace and tranquillity or public order and morality; (a) to express freely their convictions and opinions; (b) to assemble peacefully without arms; (c) to form associations and organizations.”

But there is sign that the door is slowly opening—perhaps it is too slow.

Since the new government took office in March 2011, foreign journalists and exiled Burmese journalists from BBC Burmese Service, VOA Burmese Service and Radio Free Asia have been granted media visas, a move observers say was an early indication of policy of reform.

News groups such as BBC, VOA, CNN and Al Jazeera are given a brief journalist visa and reporting live now from Rangoon and Naypyidaw.

In the past, the regime usually jammed foreign radio stations and prevented journalists to enter the country. Last year, the government also lifted ban on many exiled media websites including the Irrawaddy.

In my meeting with senior writers, bloggers and editors, I could feel that they were not pleased with status of press freedom and pace of reform in the country. When I meet them, I could feel their displeasure and anger toward press censorship board officials.

In Rangoon, I met Ludu Sein Win, one of Burma’s most respected journalists—he told me that the censorship board still blocked many of his articles. He remained sceptical that Burma will soon see full relaxation of free press and free speech.  

Burmese writers also say that many existing repressive laws should be abolished first.

In Burma, the Electronics Act is one of the repressive laws that are enforced to crush freedom of expression. The 2000 Internet law bans any information posted on the Internet that in the junta’s view may undermine the interests and security of the country. The 1996 Television and Video Act has penalties of up to three years jail term for “copying, distributing, hiring or exhibiting video tape that has no video censor certificate.”

Internet café owners in Burma are expected to follow strict guidelines to monitor users. It extends to keeping tabs on the identity of the user, the duration of Internet usage and the list of websites visited. Access to such websites like YouTube and e-mail services like Gmail, Yahoo and Hotmail has been blocked. It is a major threat to press freedom and freedom of speech.

A famous Burmese blogger, Nay Phone Latt, was one of the victims of repressive laws in Burma. He was sentenced to twenty years in prison in 2008 under electronic act.

The 32-year-old who won PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award in New York was released from prison in January and he quickly went back online. Once he enjoyed his freedom he told an AFP reporter in Rangoon: “To frighten the other bloggers and other IT-related youth, they sentenced me to so many years.”

He then added: The authorities hated bloggers and “did not understand the Internet and technology”. He was also keen to see reform of Burma’s legislation on Internet use, the Electronic Act, which has been described by media watchdog Reporters Without Borders as “one of the most liberticidal laws in the world”.

Zargana, a famous comedian who was also released from prison last year was charged under the Electronics Act. He was also sentenced to 65 years in prison. His crime was he was speaking to foreign and exiled media and he told me that sending an e-mail to overseas can land him into prison for several years. He was caught with some videos produced from exiled campaign groups.

Many Burmese are not giving in. They are pushing the envelope though they know there is a risk.

Many bloggers and citizen journalists prefer to use social networks for updating their readers. Many Rangoon-based websites and independent writers share information through Facebook, Blog, Wordpress, and Googleplus.

They shared images, news and opinion on Burma’s on going reform process, Suu Kyi’s campaign trail, unleashed anger toward government officials, and perils ahead of the transition period.

Suu Kyi gave a major speech soon after her release in November 2010—she said to thousands of supporters, “The basis of democratic freedom is freedom of speech.” She knows this is real fundamental issue in repressive Burma.

In Burma, the freedom comes with heavy price tag. “I will keep writing even if it means I get arrested again,” said Nay Phone Latt soon after his freedom. “Then we will know whether or not we have real [press] freedom.”