The ending this month of prior restraint of the media in Myanmar – the country formerly known as Burma – is substantial progress toward democracy; a few short years ago, this would have seemed a remote prospect, under a singularly grim military tyranny. But it cannot yet be said that the country has freedom of the press, though in a cabinet shuffle on Monday, a reputed liberal, U Aung Kyi, became the new Minister of Information.
After 48 years, censorship has ceased, in the narrow sense. Until now, all stories and articles had to be submitted to the Censorship Board for approval before publication, though a year ago, some less contentious subjects such as health and sports were exempted.
Ownership is the main issue. All daily newspapers still have to be the property of the state; private companies do not get licences for these; and indeed any licence requirement for printed words has for centuries been typically an instrument of control (as it was in Tudor and Stuart England).
There is only one privately owned television station, Sky Net Myanmar. There are some private radio broadcasters, but for the most part they avoid controversial topics. Consequently, the most spirited journalism is to be found in weekly and monthly papers and magazines.
Moreover, there is a heavy-handed Electronic Transactions Law, which includes prison sentences for senders of messages that are “detrimental to the interest or that lowers the dignity of any organization or person.”
The government – now only semi-military – has undertaken to introduce a press law in the country’s parliament soon, but the very idea of such a law is illiberal. (There are no newspaper statutes in Canada, for example.) The bill is expected to include a press council, which is supposed to be independent, but many observers fear that it could be the government’s comparatively subtle way of penalizing media organs that get too far out of line.
The government of Myanmar clearly recognizes that, in order to attract foreign investment, it must enact political reform. The West, and indeed all of the developed world, should persistently encourage the country to move toward genuine democracy, as well as economic liberalization.