Journalism watchdog group Reporters San Frontieres has slammed Fiji’s censorship saying it was heading dangerously towards a Burmese-style system “in which the media are permanently subject to prior censorship and other forms of obstruction”. However as bad as things are in Fiji and they are very bad, they would have to get a lot worse to compare with terrible conditions Burmese media have had to put up with for 47 years.
To understand Burma’s media needs an understanding of Burma’s governance. Buddhism is at the heart of Burmese political culture and in pre-colonial times religion informed people’s belief government was an evil to be endured and kings were unaccountable to the people. A more secular polity emerged in the 19th century under European colonisation. Lower Burma was established as a British colony after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and the northern part of the country was assimilated 10 years later.
Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 with a democratically elected civilian political leadership. In 1962 General Ne Win staged a coup under the pretext of preventing ethnic breakaway states and installed a military regime that remains in power to this day. Burma outlawed all other political parties and adopted a central planned economy Win called the “Burmese way to socialism”. Burma became one of the poorest countries in the world. In 1988, the government violently suppressed a peaceful revolution. Two years later Aung San Suu Kyi (the daughter of a murdered independence hero) led the National League for Democracy to overwhelming victory in elections only for the military to declare it invalid. They created a new ruling body, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) which later metamorphosised into the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). The SLORC/SPDC violently put down the Saffron Revolution in 2007.
Burma remains beset by major issues. The SPDC continues to string out Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest on a year-by-year basis. Ethnic groups such as the Shan and the Karen continue insurgencies against a central administration implacably opposed to a federal style of government. All sides of the conflict use unregulated commerce including the thriving opium trade to finance their operations. Burma is also a geo-political pawn. China wants Burma’s access to the Indian Ocean shipping lanes while China and India covet Burma’s abundant oil, natural gas, uranium and minerals.
Burmese media are unable to report on any of these issues. According to Aung Zaw “most Burmese have no clue what is happening in their country”. It wasn’t always this way as Burma has a long and rich tradition of journalism. Within ten years of British colonisation of Lower Burma the first western-style newspapers appeared in both English and Burmese. By 1919 Burmese language agenda setting nationalist newspapers such as Myanmar Alin (New Light of Burma) were agitating for change. At the time of independence, Burma had a vibrant network of over 30 newspapers which operated with considerable freedom in a country of much natural wealth and widespread literacy. Until 1962 the Burmese people enjoyed political and civil rights protected by the constitution, a free press and national secular education.
After 1962, the new regime installed a system of press licensing requiring the registration of all publications. The rulers also issued a warning seditious news was not to be published. Ne Win began to act as a “tyrannical king”. In 1963 the junta closed down the prestigious Nation and began to publish its own propaganda in the Working People’s Daily. By 1966, they banned all private newspapers and expelled Reuters and Associated Press correspondents. In 1993 there remained just one permitted newspaper, the Government run Working People’s Daily, printed in Burmese and English.
The broadcast media of radio and television remain tightly controlled by the Government. Radio was a wartime legacy and the Burmese followed the British model when they set up the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) after independence. BBS programmers operated with similar freedom to the press until it was abruptly ended by the military takeover in 1962. Myanmar TV began in 1980 and was supplemented by a military channel in 1990. Both channels are owned and operated by the Government and the military. Foreign stations such as STAR TV are officially available only to high ranking officials and five-star hotels in Yangon (Rangoon), but enterprising citizens in northern towns have smuggled satellite dishes across the border from China.
In the Saffron Revolution (2007), the government did not restrict the flow of international news but concentrated on crushing the watch-dog function of local media by censoring news sources, reporters and editors. The Reporters San Frontières report on Burma for 2006 confirmed the military had not released its grip. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division check every article, editorial, cartoon, advertisement and illustration ahead of publication. Burma also insists all fax machines be registered and journalists can earn a seven year prison sentence for having an unauthorised fax, video camera, modem or a copy of a banned publication. The Committee to Protection of Journalists describe Burma as one of the most repressive places for journalists, trailing only North Korea on their “10 Most Censored Countries” list.
Even minimal attempts to report the facts are ruthlessly crushed. Reporting on Aung San Suu Kyi is banned as is debate about Government policy. In 2006 two journalists were imprisoned for attempting to film the country’s controversial new capital Naypidaw and at least seven journalists were behind bars, making Burma the world’s fifth leading jailer of journalists. Burmese journalists cannot report on natural disasters, plane crashes, student brawls, regional turmoil and activities of opposition political parties lest they lead to criticism of authorities. Last year a blogger was sentenced to 45 years in jail for daring to report on Cyclone Nargiss. Journalism is Burma is less about agenda-setting than agenda-avoiding.
The Internet was tightly proscribed as of 2002 with just 14,000 email accounts for a population of 50 million people. News is stilling getting through despite repression. Because government news sources are unreliable, Burmese people tune in to shortwave radio services from the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Burmese are also turning to older technologies such as videos, tapes, facsimiles, photographs, and printed materials to get messages across. Uncontrolled ideas do get out as the 2007 Revolution showed. While the prognosis for Burma is not good in the short to medium term, the military can never fully defeat the power of communicable ideas.