Burma ends media censorship, with caveats

    A demonstration held at the Burmese embassay in London to protest censorship in the southeast Asian country. The Burmese government has declared an end to pre-publication censorship for media outlets. Photo by: English PEN / CC BY-NC-SA

    The Burmese government has declared an end to pre-publication censorship for media outlets, a step that brings the country one step further from its longtime repression and one closer to an aid-attractive environment.

    Countries with high levels of censorship are usually unattractive to donors, who view repressive governments as less than ideal partners in development.

    The most censored countries – the list includes Eritrea, Equatorial Guinea, Uzbekistan, and Belarus – almost all received less than $90 million in official development assistance in 2010, the last year for which OECD statistics are available.

    The Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Burma seventh on the list of ten most censored countries in the world this year, even after authorities took several steps towards press freedom.

    The civilian government has been slowly easing its hold on media and expression since it took office last year. Media had been tightly controlled for nearly half a century, earning it status as “the world’s worst country in which to be a blogger,” and an “Enemy of the Internet,” according to a Burmese advocacy website. Reporters Without Borders ranked it tenth worst for press freedom for 2011-2012, which was actually better than the year before.

    Burma hasn’t just been arresting journalists: It kept up to 1,700 political prisoners jailed until it began releasing them this year, in part because their release was a pre-condition set by the international community for ending the country’s pariah status. Western governments have also predicated a lifting of sanctions on Burma having free elections, and making peace with the multitude of ethnic groups within its borders.

    In keeping with the country’s overall turnaround mentality, Burma announced it would dissolve its censorship office, known as the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, in October 2011. It also freed 17 imprisoned Democratic Voice of Burma journalists, sentenced for disobeying censorship laws or engaging in “antistate” activities such as disseminating information. In recent months, it gave journalists the green light to write about controversial topics – unacceptable under previous leadership, according to the BBC.

    Critics were quick to point out that the announcement of an end to censorship does not mean government control is truly over. Films are not exempt from oversight, and written news must be submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department – which remains open – after it goes to press. Violations of press scrutiny policies could still result in sanctions and suspensions, according to the CPJ.

    The government will also continue to be in charge of licensing publishers and printers, so new voices hoping to join in Burma’s national conversation may still be silenced.

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    About the author

    • Jennifer Brookland

      Jennifer Brookland is a former Devex global development reporter based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a humanitarian reporter for the United Nations and as an investigative journalist for News21. Jennifer holds a bachelor's in foreign service from Georgetown University and a master's in journalism from Columbia University and in international law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School. She also served for four years as an Air Force officer.