Tue 29 Jun 2010
Filed under: Inside Burma
Burmese media has been given minimum space for election related news recently, but starting next month the space will likely be further restricted by new censorship rules.
Two months ago, the weekly news journals in Rangoon—an estimated seven journals, each with an average circulation of between 50,000 to 100,000—offered full pages or special stories on election coverage, introducing various political parties and their leaders who plan to contest the election this year.
But beginning in July, Burma’s notorious Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) will reduce election coverage and a newly formed commission will monitor the news journals to make sure the same rules apply to all—meaning that no journals will be able to circumvent the censorship rules with their connections or under-the-table payments, according to editors in Rangoon who spoke to The Irrawaddy.
Currently, journals are now allowed to submit three or four pages to the PSB for last-minute news. Next month, they will be allowed to submit only two pages, which must not include any political news.
Even a 20-page new political publication, the Monitor Journal, which is run by a regime-favored publisher, canceled its publication last week after suffering heavy cuts by the censorship board which approved only four pages. One Rangoon source said that a recent change of officials at the PSB caused the change in rules, while another editor said it was an official policy change in the run-up to the election.
“This is not a change by the censorship board itself. This is a policy shift,” said a Rangoon editor who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The government initially allowed the media a small space to legitimize its planned election in the eyes of the public and the international community. Now it seems to think enough is enough.”
So far, much of the election coverage allowed by the regime has been focused on not allowing any stories to reflect anti-government or anti-election opinions or information.
The journals were allowed to publish interviews with political leaders who want to contest the elections as opposed to those against the election, such as the majority of the members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s disbanded National League for Democracy (NLD). Intentionally or not, the coverage was also focused on the split within the NLD over the election, although the stories never criticized the controversial election laws or the regime’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).
Recently, the PSB allowed 1988 nationwide protests to be described as a “general strike”—a major political event which the regime usually terms the “88” disturbance. Reflecting the call for “a free and fair” election, one journal was also allowed to quote a cartoonist, who said: “If the election is properly held in line with democratic norms and standards, a major turnout will happen.”
A Rangoon-based reporter said, “That period is over now. We can’t say it’s fair if the regime only allows us to report on what the pro-government parties are saying.”
The latest developments follow election commission rules released last week that political parties must agree not to say or publish anything that criticizes the military, government, or civil service personnel. According to Rangoon media sources, the government is starting the latest round of censorship to ensure that “the pro-democracy parties” are not allowed to get their message out to the people prior to the election.
“The government wants to make sure that pro-democracy parties like the NLD splinter party, the National Democratic Force, Thu Wai’s Democratic Party [Myanmar] and Phyo Min Thein’s Union Democratic Party do not get their message out through the media,” said one editor.
Burmese officials have made it clear that they do not want regional or international groups to monitor the planned election whose date has not yet been announced.
With tighter censorship rules, the Burmese public will remain dependent mainly on radio stations such as the BBC and VOA, as they were during Burma’s last election in 1990.
While censorship is a real concern, others questioned the level of public interest in the election.
“We’re talking about how we are allowed to cover the election, but we may be missing the fact that people are not very interested in this election,” said one Rangoon editor.