Two steps forward—two steps back?

Following the student protests in Burma in 1988, an independent magazine called The Irrawaddy was founded in exile in Thailand, and quickly became a respected source for news from the closed country. Now the magazine has moved back home—and has encountered a number of new ways in which press freedom has been limited. There is more than one way to skin a cat, something that Aung Zaw, the legendary editor of Irrawaddy has come to experience.

March 13 2014 Text: Aung Zaw

Burma’s press freedom suffered setback when the government detained reporters from a local journal, the Unity, this month. 

The Unity Journal’s crime was publishing a story about secret chemical weapon in central Burma. Editors and reporters were immediately detained and charged with violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act. They were accused of “approaching, observing and checking, trespassing, entering, photographing and abetting in the factory’s restricted areas without permission,” according to the Ministry of Information.

Indeed, there have been more troubles on the horizon as foreign and local journalists predict and fear that the limited political opening in the country and partial lifting of censorship in Burma will only create climate of fear and uncertainty. They all know that the MoI is still and remained powerful controlling publishing licenses of every private dailies and weeklies. (All private papers and journals have to renew publishing license every year.)

My understanding is that there has been backsliding in Burma’s “political reform.”

A few weeks ago, the Ministry of Information (MoI) suddenly introduced new visa rules for foreign journalists. It means new visa restrictions will make it difficult for reporters and journalists to remain based in the country full time.

The MoI has started denying requests for three- to six-month journalist visas for foreign passport holders who work at formerly exiled media groups—including our editors and reporters at The Irrawaddy—which were previously based abroad but have returned to Burma during the country’s transition from military rule. At the end of last month, the ministry started granting visas to some journalists that are only valid for a fraction of the requested time, despite a lack of any official announcement about a policy change. But the government has accused journalists of misusing newfound freedoms by reporting misinformation. Last month state-run media criticized The Associated Press and The Irrawaddy after both publications reported allegations by a rights group that dozens of Rohingya Muslims had been massacred in Maungdaw Township, Arakan State. Although the United Nations has backed these reports, saying it received credible information that 48 Muslims were killed the government has vehemently denied the allegations.

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Burma, visited Burma recently and said that he remains convinced that serious violent incidents took place there last month. So far media has very limited access to the area.

In any case, soon after the report of killings in Arakan State published, MoI called representatives of the AP into its office for a talk but some sources in Rangoon said AP reporters were “scolded.” Then the Foreign Affairs Ministry blocked reporters from the AP, The Irrawaddy, and several publications from attending a press briefing about Maungdaw.

Since the launch of Burmese-language weekly at the beginning of the year, the MoI has contacted our editors in Rangoon to let them know that the name of our publication—the same name that we have used for more than 20 years—is “inappropriate.” “The Irrawaddy,” they say, is too “colonial,” and should be changed to “The Ayeyarwady,” in keeping with the official spellings of Burmese names imposed by the SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) in 1989.

It is completely ridiculous - we won’t change the name and we can’t accept it. We feel that it is the government’s arbitrary decision to meddle with our very identity. We have called ourselves “The Irrawaddy” for a very long time, and have worked hard to make that name a byword for journalistic independence and integrity. And this is not the only bone that the MOI has to pick with The Irrawaddy. After the second issue of our weekly came out, we were informed that an illustration of President U Thein Sein that we published was also “inappropriate.”

Troubles did not stop there. The state-run daily, The Mirror, which we have used to publicize the contents of our Burmese language weekly journal, has told us that it doesn’t have space to run an advertisement for our third issue. This is quite intriguing as officials at the newspaper also suggested that we should “tone down” some of our more politically sensitive headlines, since all advertisements must have MoI approval before they can be published.

Looking at media landscape in Burma, media watchdog and human rights groups expressed concern. Shawn Crispin, the Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said visa restrictions sent a clear signal that foreign news organizations were not entirely welcome in the country and would be subject to arbitrary penalties for critical news coverage.

“It appears authorities are reverting to the previous junta’s divide-and-rule tactic of rewarding news outlets that give generally favorable coverage to the government and punishing those that are more critical. We are particularly concerned that former exile-run media groups that have recently established bureaus in Burma and downsized their foreign operations are being targeted,” he told our publication recently.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher on Burma for New York-based Human Rights Watch joined in. He told the Irrawaddy, “Recent harassment of Burmese and international reporters over journalist visas marks a sinister backsliding in the much-touted media reform sector,”

“International donors and diplomats must be aware that freedoms of the media are a key barometer in the sincerity of Thein Sein’s reforms, and the climate is decidedly cooler now. The Ministry of Information has to pull back from this spiteful harassment of journalists doing their jobs.”

It is doubtful that ministers and officials (who were former members of former repressive regime and played key role in psychological warfare against democratic opposition and activists and international community) will listen. As more donors including Scandinavian governments are pouring more aid to Burma including training reporters and journalists from MoI officials are even thinking to lecture reporters and journalists how to report accurately and fairly. If it is the case, it will be a biggest joke in our country. It is the case of pot calling the kettle black!

But what we understand now the government feels a need to clip our wings.