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    Southeast Asia
     Jun 15, 2011

Illusion of freedom in Myanmar
By Francis Wade

CHIANG MAI - An apparent relaxation of media regulations suggests that Myanmar's once watertight censorship board has in recent months undergone something of a change of heart.

The amendment to the country's press laws in March to allow the majority of non-news journals to bypass pre-censorship was accompanied by last week's announcement that two Thailand-based dailies, the Bangkok Post and The Nation, will soon be allowed to hit newsstands in Yangon. Both events have helped to massage the carefully crafted image of a government loosening its grip on the media as it moves steadily towards democratic reform.
Aiding the revamp is President Thein Sein, a remnant of the previous ruling junta who in his few public appearances since

taking office has sought to dilute his hardline image with somewhat reformist rhetoric. He used his first speech as the country's new leader to emphasize that the media is the "fourth estate" in Myanmar and demanded that both civilians and ministers "respect the role" it plays.

His words would seem to mark a sea-change for media freedom from the half-century of military rule that ostensibly ended on March 31 with the installation of an elected government. Beneath the surface, however, little has changed for the country's harassed journalists and censored publications. The new rule allowing some 200 journals and magazines to avoid the scrutiny of the censorship board is reserved only for fluffy publications that deal with topics like sport, children's literature and entertainment - the sort of material that poses little threat to the rulers.

Still at the mercy of government censors is any magazine that reports on political topics or questions decisions made in parliament, which means that any hint of public debate or commentary about the new government and its leaders will continue to be redacted.

Indeed, the ostensible relaxation of censorship rules could in fact make the working environment more dangerous and unpredictable for domestic journalists. Previously it was up to the censorship board, known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), to spot and block news that could be considered critical of the government and its policies. Now the onus has shifted to the scribes themselves, with the result that they can no longer safely test the limits of the law and will take the full weight of retribution whenever they are perceived to have crossed an ever-shifting line.

Observers know well the potential penalty of pushing this boundary in a country where nearly 30 media workers are currently behind bars. Some of them are serving decades-long sentences, usually on trumped up charge, for their critical news reporting. They are a constant warning to other local journalists and a motivation for self-censorship that is endemic at local news publications.

About 2,200 political prisoners are currently locked up in Myanmar's prisons, a situation the newly elected parliament has failed to address.

Myanmar's consistent ranking at the tail end of press freedom indexes is one of a number of barometers historically used by the international community to justify punitive measures, including economic and financial sanctions, against the regime. But nearly 15 years after the first set of economic sanctions was implemented, international players are increasingly questioning their efficacy.

The European Union (EU), for instance, recently suspended a visa ban and asset freeze it had imposed on a number of senior government officials. The United States, too, has moved tentatively towards more engagement after imposing new financial sanctions against the military regime and its business supporters after its 2007 crackdown on Buddhist monk-led street protests.

Thein Sein's government has capitalized on this potential opening through a carefully choreographed public relations campaign that began with last November's elections and the release of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and has continued with recent reform vows.

These cosmetic changes have helped to shift image perceptions, seen in the EU's dropping of some of its punitive measures in March and its coincident praise for the regime's "greater civilian character". United Nations official Vijay Nambiar followed with his own kudos, saying the regime has demonstrated "very encouraging" signs after his visit in May.

Old authoritarian ways
Despite this high-level praise, so far there is no indication that the government has overhauled the authoritarian and unchecked way power has long been wielded in Myanmar. On-the-ground evidence points to the contrary, with armed conflict in the border regions escalating and the harsh political sentencing of journalists and dissidents continuing apace since last year's elections. Two journalists from the exile-run, Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma were recently jailed for eight and 13 years for merely photographing the aftermath of mysterious grenade attacks in Yangon last year.

To be sure, marginal new media space has opened. In particular, domestic journals have been allowed to cover the Middle East and North Africa uprisings but have been barred from publishing any hard or comparative analysis of those events.

Some believe a real acid test will come on July 3 when neighboring Thailand heads to the polls after violent street protests and a military crackdown last year. Fresh in the minds of Yangon's news editors will be last year's three-week suspension of The Voice, after the popular magazine ran a piece on Thailand's "red shirt" anti-government movement that irked the censorship board.

At the same time, there are parallel indications that the regime is tightening its grip, particularly over the Internet. Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders released a report shortly after last year's elections alleging that what the government had presented publicly as an Internet "upgrade" would in fact improve its on-line surveillance capabilities. "The new system requires Internet requests to go through even more ISP [Internet service provider] servers and therefore users are subjected to more screening and controls," the report said.

Reporters Without Borders also claimed that the upgrade gave the military exclusive control over the country's main link to the global Internet, meaning that during times of crisis or upheaval authorities will have the power to shut down publicly-accessible Internet servers without affecting its own access.

Underground journalists who have kept the world informed about pivotal events that the regime has tried to censor will in future struggle to feed footage and information to foreign news outlets, as they did so effectively during the August-September 2007 uprising and crackdown.

The government's improved online surveillance capabilities are already on display: in April a former army captain was arrested for possessing an e-mail with the words "national reconciliation" in its title. He faces up to 20 years in prison under the draconian Electronics Act and may well carry the distinction of being the newly elected government's first political prisoner.

Strict rules for Internet cafes that require owners to take regular screen shots of their computers and send them to the Telecommunications Ministry every month have also been tightened. Customers can now no longer use CDs and external hard drives.

In March authorities enacted a ban on the use of Internet-based services like Skype that allow locals to avoid exorbitant international telephone costs but are also more difficult for the government to monitor.

The duplicity of the government's reform vows and actual policies is plain and clearly out of step with a genuine democratic transition. So far that's being lost on what was once a more discerning international community, judging by the EU's and UN's recent praise of the regime and its direction.

Those premature kudos will allow the country's new rulers to claim democratic gains where they are lacking and shy away from the media and other reforms needed to ensure that the new elected government isn't a carbon copy of the military old.

Francis Wade is a Thailand-based journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma.

(Copyright 2011 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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