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Burma Approves News Dailies Amid Outcry


When 16 Burmese newspapers are granted operating licenses on April 1, they will become the first independent dailies allowed to publish in nearly 50 years.

While journalists have described the move as a major step toward media freedom in Burma, they have also voiced outrage at the country's draft media law, released earlier this month, which critics say could roll back government promises to loosen its grip on a long tightly controlled industry.

That bill bans reporting on several topics, including the Burmese military's battles with ethnic rebels and any coverage critical of the 2008 military-drafted constitution. It also permits six-month jail terms for failing to register news publications with the government.

"If the authorities want to build a democracy, these kinds of restrictions should not be in place," said Wai Phyo, chief editor of Eleven Media, one of the leading private news organizations in Burma, also known as Myanmar. "If parliament passes the draft law and it impacts the Burmese media, we will fight it in every way possible."

The proposed legislation would replace a widely condemned 1962 publishing law that gives the government broad powers to control media output and punish journalists it considers to be working against the "national interest."

"If passed in its current form, the draft law would essentially replace Burma's old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one," said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Burmese Information Minister Aung Kyi has defended the bill, noting that since media censorship was abolished, many new and "poisonous" publications have emerged. He cited dozens of magazines that have published photographs he labeled as "contrary to Myanmar's cultural norms."

Censorship lifted

In the decades following Burma's 1962 military coup, reporters in the southeast Asian nation were among the most restricted in the world. State-run media controlled the dissemination of hard news, and independent journalists were heavily censored. Many were spied on, tortured and imprisoned.

Even photos of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi were barred.

The only objective news coverage available during that time was produced by the country's robust exiled media, like the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, and foreign broadcasters such as the Voice of America, BBC and Radio Free Asia.

But since Burma's ruling generals ended their dictatorship in March 2011, President Thein Sein's elected government has significantly relaxed media restrictions, allowing reporters to publish material that would have been unthinkable during five decades of military rule.

Last August, authorities stopped censoring private publications. Four months later, they announced plans to allow the publication of independent daily newspapers, which had been banned in 1964 to accommodate the government's onerous censorship requirements. The military government had allowed the publication of weeklies, whose distribution schedule afforded censors time to comb for illegal subject matter.

Meanwhile, the Burmese government began drafting the new media law, but without input from press groups.

"In our draft bill there will be no more censorship board and [we] will grant the right of international standards and some articles concerning the right of access to information," Ye Htut, deputy minister for information, said last May.

Journalists fight back

Media groups pushed back strongly when the ministry's printing and publishing bill was submitted to parliament earlier this month. Journalists' complaints helped delay a vote on the proposed legislation until representatives reconvene in June.

Kyaw Min Swe, editor-in-chief of the private weekly The Voice, said the speaker of parliament's lower house did not allow debate on the legislation "because many media organizations have sent letters of criticism" to parliamentary officials.

On Tuesday, the Information Ministry granted eight more media groups permission to publish dailies as of April 1, bringing the number of new licenses to 16.

Eleven Media, which has contributed cutting edge reporting on a number of sensitive issues, was among those green-lighted this week. The group's initial application was rejected on a technicality.

Internet tampering

While Burma's media liberalization moves haltingly forward, authorities have continued to clamp down severely on Internet use.

Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group that defends freedom of the press, this month accused the Burmese government of enforcing harsh and widespread Internet censorship.

"The Burmese firewall restricts users to an intranet purged of any anti-government content," the group said. "Blocked websites include exiled Burmese media, proxies and other censorship circumvention tools, certain international media, and blogs and sites offering scholarships abroad."

Other media watchdogs note that while previously censored news websites have been unblocked, the government still detains online dissidents.

In its 2012 Freedom of the Net report, Freedom House estimated that less than 1 percent of the Burmese population has Internet access. Users also are hampered by exceedingly slow connection speeds.

When Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited Rangoon last week, he urged authorities to allow free speech and private sector development of Burma's primitive telecommunications infrastructure.

Despite the setbacks, many journalists remain optimistic.

"The reform process has had a huge impact on the media landscape in Myanmar," said Thiha Saw, a veteran reporter and vice president of the Myanmar Journalists Association.

"Private, print media existed for 40-50 years under two military regimes, but with very strict restrictions and [heavy] censorship," he said. "[Now] it's all gone, starting in August last year, 48 years of pre-press censorship is gone."

Thiha Saw spent years battling with censors and is highly critical of the draft media law. In a recent interview, he predicted that Burmese journalists "won't be as free" as their Philippine or Thai colleagues, but will "definitely be more liberal than [those in] Cambodia, Vietnam or Singapore."
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    Mark Snowiss

    Mark Snowiss is a Washington D.C.-based multimedia reporter.  He has written and edited for various media outlets including Pacifica and NPR affiliates in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @msnowiss and on Google Plus

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