On-the-ground assessments by BBG staff who have traveled to Burma indicate there is slow but methodical movement toward a freer press…
By Doug Boynton
BBG Office of Strategy and Development
In multiple trips to Burma (Myanmar) over the past year, the progress in allowing media freedom I’ve witnessed has been slow, but steady. At a recent meeting, one media executive remarked on “…how far we’ve come. Barely more than a year ago,” he said, “just talking with you would land me in jail.”
On my first visit in February of 2012, I received a crash course in how censorship worked in Burma. There were no daily newspapers, and news broadcasts only came from state radio and television. Anything labeled “news” had to be pre-approved by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division of the Ministry of Information.
That agency was disbanded in 2012, although newspapers and broadcasters still must be licensed to operate. Freedom House notes in its annual report that “…the resulting uncertainty about what constituted grounds for postpublication suspension of licenses led to an increase in self-censorship by journalists and editors.”
As I’ve pointed out to colleagues on several occasions, self-censorship may not be optimal, but it’s a step in the right direction – away from government censorship.
And the government began licensing daily newspapers for the first time this year, with the total now up to 26 dailies operating, or expected to begin operations soon. The website Myanmar Business Network reports that the International Herald Tribune (or its New York Times International Edition successor) has been given a license to join other papers on the street.
Voice of America’s Burmese-language news is now seen semi-regularly via direct-to-home satellite TV, and VOA’s English teaching programs air regularly on Myanmar state radio, of all places. But for international broadcasters in the Burmese language, including Radio Free Asia, the big play is still over the border by radio and satellite.
Freedom House ranks press freedom annually. All of this activity in 2012 moved Burma from 187th in Press Freedom (surrounded by China, Syria, Cuba and Vietnam) to 164th, in company with Burundi and the United Arab Emirates.
Baby steps? Yes. Progress? Yes, again.