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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2829

Will Burma nurture its press freedom?

By – Zin Linn

Every year in May, people used to highlight the importance of the free flow of information. They also draw attention to freedom of expression, speech, writing, publishing and distribution of news among journalists, citizens of international community and peoples of various categories living on this earth.

World Press Freedom Day in 2014 focuses on three inter-related themes: media’s importance in development; safety of journalists and the rule of law; and the sustainability and integrity of journalism. The occasion is also one of the most significant events in Burma this year. The reason seemed that it was the third time to be granted the opportunity to hold an international forum preceding a grand scale on freedom of the press after people had been suffering forced information-shutdown for more than half a century.

Freedom of the press is the fundamental right of the world of human beings. The right of every citizen to read news is directly proportionate to free flow of information including freedom of news production, speech and writing. Particularly in independent societies, freedom of the press means the right to circulate opinions in print without censorship by the respective governments.

At some points in recent years in Burma, the dissolution of press censorship, permitting private newspapers and creation of an Interim Press Council are signs of progress concerning freedom of the press. Thanks to the Office of the President of Burma (Myanmar) for such advancements in media sector, especially it is remarkable that the President acknowledges the major role of the media as the fourth estate, in his speeches.

However, contrary to the President’s attitude, it is regrettable that Zaw Phay, a reporter of DVB Multimedia Group, received one-year jail term by a court in Magway on 7 April on charges of trespassing on government property and disturbing a civil servant. It shows that the Magway Divisional Government does not respect the press freedom which President U Thein Sein acknowledges as a necessity.

Before reporter Zaw Phay’s case, female journalist Ma Khine’s appeal was rejected by a court in Loikaw on 27 January. She was sentenced on 17 December to three months in prison on charges of trespassing, using abusive language and defamation in connection with her visit to a lawyer’s home for an interview last year.

Another bad sign for free press was related to the detention of reporters from the Unity Weekly Journal. The journal published a story concerning secret chemical weapon factory on 25 January. Police detained them in Pauk on 31 January on a charge of violating the State Secret Act, which allows a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. The authorities told their family that the reporters could not be freed on bail.

Very recently, Angus Watson, an Australian reporter working for DVB’s Rangoon bureau, is said to be the first journalist forced to leave the country by the regime since President Thein Sein’s government began easing press censorship in 2012. Watson was also accused of breaching the terms of his business visa by covering the protest in Magwe, and also charged participating in the protest, which had been organized without permission from the local authorities to express backing for another DVB reporter, Zaw Phay, who was behind bars last month.

Therefore, journalists in Burma or Myanmar have to keep on their jobs facing threats and hindrances in the face of comprehensive reform process including media freedom. As contemporary restrictive laws continues self-censorship, a new printing and publishing bill aimed to re-impose broad censorship guidelines and grant a newly created sweeping registration powers to issue and revoke publishing licenses.

The public has a right to be informed on a subject of general interest like the story covered by the Unity Journal. Journalists who are just doing their job must be protected, and if anyone has to be prosecuted, it should be the newspaper. Under no circumstances should journalists be imprisoned because of the content of their articles.

As a matter of fact, with the approval of the Office of the President, an Interim Press Council has been formed so as to ensure that the freedom of the press in Burma/Myanmar is in compliance with that of the international standards. This Council needs to defend not only the freedom of the press, but also to look after the safety measures of the media personnel.

The controversial Printers and Publishers Regulation Law, drafted by the Ministry of Information without consultation with respective journalist organizations, requires each and every media enterprise to register with the government or risk penalties, telling that power of censorship still lies with the authorities. It is clear that the publishing law still gives the Ministry of Information the power to withhold or revoke publishing licenses unilaterally.

While the Printers and Publishers Regulation Law drafted by the MOI is a controversial, there are more attempts to enforce restrictions indirectly on the freedom of the press by means of other laws which are now being drafted.

Most of Burma’s media-related groups and journalists have opposed the repressive laws made by the government including procedures of writing additional draft laws for the media, with regulations for broadcasting, film, and the use of libraries as the new laws could add additional controls on the media.

Press is the fourth pillar of a State, as it is accepted around the world. The lifeblood of democracy is free flow of information. Burma (Myanmar) needs international cooperation for Press Freedom. While the country is at an intersection of political reform, the media workers in the country are looking forward to have more understanding and pragmatic backing from the international media groups.

Every journalist in the country needs to take the opportunity stating his/her unchanging effort for the emergence of the genuine fourth estate including trustworthy journalism to help smooth transition to democracy in Burma/Myanmar. Journalists in Burma have to determine to continue monitoring of the peace process between the government and the various ethnic armed groups as a priority

One of the main challenges of Burma is reconciliation between the ethnic armed groups and the government. Everyone has suffered from the various protracted conflicts in the country. Journalists can serve as a bridge between the ethnic armed groups, the government and civilian population to establish lasting peace in the country. The role of the ‘Media’ or the ‘Press’ is very important in time of rebuilding the country.

Without press freedom a nation cannot have social equality or democracy. It will cause Burma’s fledgling democracy a bad name if the government and all other stakeholders failed to nurture the press freedom.

- Asian Tribune -

Will Burma nurture its press freedom?
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