In light of recent Burmese government statements and actions following media coverage of the unrest in Rakhine State, Reporters Without Borders (RWB), a freedom of the press watchdog, warned on Friday Burma is tightening restrictions on the press in spite of recent promises to end censorship.
“Until now, the government has been relaxing its abusive control of the media but, as it does not know how to assist the media in the new, rapidly emerging political and economic environment, it has reacted in an instinctive manner to what it regards as the excessive liberties the media are taking and has initiated at least three prosecutions since the start of the year,” it said on its website on Friday.
It said, “modernization and liberalization of the media and adoption of adequate media legislation are not going to be the result of the country’s democratization but are inescapable preconditions for its democratization, ones that must be tackled right away.”
A RWB report issued on Friday analyses the key role of Internet and media coverage as the violence in Arakan (Rakhine) State unfolded, the difficulties of access to information, the attacks on the foreign and exile media, the role played by the government and the dangers resulting from news manipulation and its impact on the tension in the region.
The group said that domestic and international media have been subjected to pressure by the government and by domestic Burmese groups for its coverage of the sectarian unrest, including personal attacks on reporters and media organization websites.
The excesses of the social media reporting and commentary on the Internet and in certain domestic media enflamed tensions during the crisis, and “have highlighted the enormous challenges that the Burmese media are facing as they emerge from 50 years of censorship,” said the report.
However, “Rather than repressive measures, what the media really require is self-regulation. Liberalization of the media needs to be accompanied by the development of an appropriate code of conduct, which only journalists can do, not the government.”
The Burmese media saw several repressive censorship rules relaxed during 2011. Much of the media were progressively exempted from prior censorship and, as a result, critical articles and controversial interviews were published during the campaign for the parliamentary by-elections, it said.
Reporters Without Borders said the reinstitution of censorship and government control of the media would be a serious mistake, especially in light of a new more liberal media law that the government said would be approved in the coming Parliament, which meets in July.
Maintaining or backing away from ending censorship would constitute a disturbing step backwards, following the government pledges to move toward democracy, it said.
“We point out that the head of the PSRD [government censors], Tint Swe, had announced that it would be disbanded at the end of June,” said RWB. However, since the unrest, Tint Swe has threatened the press with more control and censorship.
It said that the government’s legal proceedings against the weekly Snapshot journal should be dropped and the suspension of its publishing license should be rescinded. The journal published a photo of a woman who was raped and murdered in Arakan State in May. Her rape and murder, and other factors, set off a wave of violence over the following weeks.
The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division imposed an indefinite suspension on Snapshot following a warning it issued to all publications to avoid coverage that could add to tensions between Buddhists and Muslims in the state.
The publication’s editor said the journal downloaded the photograph from the Internet, and printed it because it was already widely circulated.
RWB said Burmese and foreign media should be granted access to Arakan (Rakhine) State and other areas of the country when they request it.
It called for the formation of a national Press Council in order to draft rules of professional conduct and ethics, without government officials involved in the formation or drafting process.
Regarding professional conduct, it said news organizations must urgently remind journalists of the requirements of professional ethics and must organize special training on how to handle sensitive issues that touch on race, religion and other areas.
Burma is ranked 169th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.
For a copy of the report, go to http://en.rsf.org/burma-aung-san-suu-kyi-handed-report-on-28-06-2012,42913.html