Saturday, May 3rd is World Press Freedom Day. The UN General Assembly marks this as a time to:
celebrate the fundamental principles of press freedom;
assess the state of press freedom throughout the world;
defend the media from attacks on their independence;
[and] pay tribute to journalists who have lost their lives in the line of duty.”
When it comes to press freedom, Burma is “not free,” making this an opportune time to call attention to the ongoing suppression of free speech in Burma.
Since 2011, the Burmese government has been praised by many in the international community for making progress on media reform, including ending pre-publication censorship and releasing some jailed journalists. But the legitimacy of these apparent gains is now being reconsidered. The media gains are being revealed for what they truly are–fronts for the government’s real priority to control and suppress its population.
“What we see now is serious backsliding,” Irrawaddy editor Aung Zaw said recently at Stanford University. “The changes have become more superficial; the changes are not real.”
The former junta’s control over the media has continued in ways both subtle and blatant. Pre-publication government censorship officially ended in 2012 with the closure of the government’s 1984-esque “Press Scrutiny and Registration Division.” But the recent arrests of several journalists indicate that Burma is not the utopia of personal expression the government postures it to be.
Two bills recently signed into law by President Thein Sein highlight the juxtaposition of supposed newfound freedom with the reality of ongoing suppression. The laws effectually amount to one step forward and two jumps backward for press freedom in Burma.
The Press Law and the Printers and Publishers Registration Law passed Parliament in March. “Both [laws] fall substantially short of hopes among local journalists and press groups,” noted media watchdog group Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ).
The Press Law had seemed to offer a glimmer of hope–legislation drafted with the input of journalists that outlined journalists’ rights. For a country like Burma, that would be moving in the right direction.
But in stark juxtaposition to the Press Law stands the Printers and Publishers Registration Law, drafted by the Ministry of Information without the consent or input of journalists. The law replaces a 1962 law of the same name, a junta-era silencing tool that granted the state complete control over media. The new version isn’t much better as it leaves the government with the authority to issue and revoke press licenses for any reason and in terms that are ambiguous at best.
It also bans publishing on certain topics–leaving the state with the final say on what can and cannot be said. The legislation bans the publication of any materials that could “incite unrest” or threaten “national security, rule of law or community peace and tranquility.” This murky legal jargon gives the government significant leverage over the media, in effect forcing journalists to self-censor or face the very real risk of jail time.
Protecting Hate, Silencing Dissent
The Printers and Publishers Registration Law also bans anything that “insult[s] religion” or “harm[s] ethnic unity.” This is particularly preposterous given that state media has been known to run hate-fueled headlines themselves, particularly against the Rohingya Muslim minority. Government mouthpiece newspaper The New Light of Myanmar ran an article in June 2013 in support of the 1982 Citizenship Law (which renders the Rohingya stateless) under the headline, “The Earth cannot swallow a race to extinction, but another race can.”
Xenophobic statements like this are shocking, but might even be considered tame when compared to racist rhetoric spewed elsewhere in the media–especially by Ashin Wirathu, the self-proclaimed “Burmese Bin Laden.” The prominent monk, dubbed “The Face Of Buddhist Terror” by Time, is running a campaign of hate against Muslims through his extremist Buddhist Nationalist ‘969’ movement. Wirathu has referred to those of the Islamic faith as “mobs of rapists, thieves and proselytizers terrorizing villages.” He incites anger with scathing propaganda, spreading gross misinformation (“according to my research, 100% of rape cases in Burma are by Muslims; none are by Buddhists”) and fear among the greater populace.
But apparently, the government does not consider the rhetoric of ethnic extermination “insulting” to the Islamic faith or harmful to the “ethnic unity” of the Rohingya; President Thein Sein is even supportive of Wirathu.
Government discrimination makes the legislation highly dangerous; government authorities’ interpretation of the legislation will be subjective and prone to the severe bias of the state’s agenda. The legislation allows the festering of vitriolic hate speech on one hand, while silencing political dissidents on the other.
Video journalist Zaw Pe is facing this harsh reality right now. On April 7, Zaw Pe was sentenced to one year in jail, charged with trespassing and disturbing a civil servant. Zaw Pe was arrested in August 2012 after visiting the Magwe Division Education Department in conjunction with a developing story on a Japanese-funded scholarship program.
Now Zaw Pe is sitting in Thayet Prison, Magwe Division, separated from his wife and young son, for reporting on a topic well within the realm of public interest. The case of Zaw Pe illustrates the danger of trusting the Burmese government. If it’s left up to the government, journalists will continue to be thrown behind bars under false pretenses.
The Burmese media is not free. The government’s control over speech remains firm, stifling freedom of expression and discouraging political dissent.
On this World Press Freedom Day, call for the freedom of Zaw Pe and all journalists behind bars.