Burma’s media: state versus freedom of expression


Left to right: Dr. Ma Thida, Khin Mya Zin, Nay Phone Latt (Sameera Raja / Ryersonian Staff)

Although Burma has lifted its 50-year media censorship, government intervention still looms over freedom of expression and journalists.

“Journalists still face problems in freedom of expression,” said surgeon and human rights activist Dr. Ma Thida at the International Issues Discussion (IID) series last Wednesday.

Hosted by IID and PEN Canada, the event Behind the Veil of Democracy: Burma’s struggle for Freedom, discussed the lives of Thida, Nay Phone Latt and Khin Mya Zin – three Burmese activists whose voices were oppressed after a military takeover.

“If you want to be a writer in our country, you have to overcome two obstacles: one the editor, and two, the censorship.” – Nay Phone Latt

PEN Canada, according to their website, “is a nonpartisan organization of writers that works with others to defend freedom of expression as a basic human right, at home and abroad.” They also work in helping free persecuted writers.

In 1962, military-ruled Burma was under both media and internet censorship by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD). The Ministry of Information created PSRD and implemented the Printers’ and Publishers’ Registration Act to restrict the freedom of the press. Strict restrictions required editors and publishers to provide PRSD content to be approved before publication. If content was published without PRSD’s approval or had a strong stance against military rule, the publication could be banned. The act covered all fronts of print from short stories to magazine features.

Thida was released in 1993 after 20 years of imprisonment for her support to pro-democracy movements in Myanmar and for “distributing unlawful literature.” During her time in prison, Thida developed tuberculosis and was restricted from medication by prison security, leading to liver failure. In her talk, she drew parallels with the right to healthcare with the right to expression. “If we voluntarily let our rights go away, we lose our rights. Other than that we would never lose our rights.”

While Thida was scrutinized over her pro-democracy views, political activist Nay Phone Latt, was arrested in 2008 for his coverage on the Saffron Revolution, which consisted of anti-government protests in the region. The revolution gained extensive international media coverage, which Latt attributed to technology and accessibility to smartphones. Latt, who was born into a politically active family that supported the National League of Democracy, started his blog in 2007 during his time in Singapore. He used his blog as a loophole towards government-imposed restrictions. After arriving in Burma, he opened an internet cafe that gave young Burmese people an avenue to express anti-government views. The cafe, combined with his opposition, soon led government officials to Latt’s whereabouts. He was then arrested under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, claiming he spread false news to “disrupt the country’s security.” In the media, editors also played devil’s advocate and were selective of what content to publish.

“If you want to be a writer in our country, you have to overcome two obstacles: one the editor, and two, the censorship,” Latt added.

As the country’s political paradigm shifted from military to civilian government, Burma’s media also progressed. Latt’s initial sentence of 20 years was reduced to four years based on humanitarian grounds by Myanmar’s government in 2012. The government released over 3,000 convicts in that year, including political prisoners. In August 2012, Burma ended media censorship and the PRSD.  However, the success was marred after the government suspended two publications, The Voice and the Envoy, for publishing content without permission in the same month. Since the changes, the 2012 press council has drafted two acts for journalists to abide but has been criticized for the restraints on content. Because of such limitations, Freedom of the Press 2014 still classifies Burma’s media as not free.

It seems media censorship will be an ongoing discussion between journalists and the government in Burma. It’s clear, however, that state and media should be treated as two separate entities. By staying independent, the press can broaden its scope, allowing for freedom of expression.

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