Burma is one of the world's most repressive countries for the media, ranked 174 out of 178 countries in our latest worldwide index. At least 25 journalists are in jail and the main sources of independent news and information are in exile. Exiled media like the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Irrawaddy and Mizzima News use networks of local correspondents who have to work with the utmost secrecy. Although Barack Obama still expressed concerns over Burma's record on human rights, Hillary Clinton's trip to Nay Pyi Taw and Rangoon this week, the first visit to Burma by a U.S. Secretary of State in over a half a century, will definitely open a new chapter.
Since the general election in November 2010, the government of the new President Thein Sein has made a few conciliatory gestures towards the opposition. We all remember the release of the Nobel Peace Prize Aung San Suu Kyi on November 13, 2010. Last October, Myanmar Nation editor Win Maung, three DVB journalists and the comedian and blogger Zarganar were also freed under a government amnesty of 230 people.
Burma is now working on a new media law and the latest statements released by Burmese officials are promising. On October 7th, 2011 the head of Burma's Press Scrutiny Board called for press freedom in the country, saying his own department should be closed down as part of reforms being pursued by the new nominally civilian government. And last week, Ko Ko Hlaing, the chief political advisor to the President said that "[the] new media law will reflect guaranteed freedom of expression, so no censorship. But there will be some monitoring systems."
For the U.S. President, these releases and the media relaxing measures are part of Burma's "flickers of progress," that "could be an historic opportunity for progress [...]. [I]f Burma continues to travel down the road of democratic reform, it can forge a new relationship with the United States of America." This is however quite different with the reality on the ground and there is definitely room for improvement.
Last May, the government declared that print media would no longer have to submit articles about leisure, sport and other non-political subjects to the Press Scrutiny Board for approval. The pre-publication censorship that is implemented by the Board is virtually unique in the world and continues to prevent any editorial independence. This measure benefited about 60 per cent of the country's publications but prompted them to be more careful with what they wrote. A lot of publications now censor themselves for fear of reprisals. It seems unlikely that the prior censorship that affects most of Burma's privately owned publications is going to be lifted in the near future.
Online freedom is still very limited. Mid-march, the government prohibited the use of services like Skype and VZOchat that allow Internet users to make free or cheap international phone calls. In May, the authorities also tightened Internet café regulations and customers are not allowed anymore to use CDs, USB sticks and floppy drives anymore. But in September, and following a visit by the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burma, access to a number of previously banned foreign news websites including Youtube, BBC, Reuters, The Bangkok Post, Straits Times, Radio Free Asia, Irrawaddy, DVB, and the Burmese service of Voice of America has been unblocked. Internet connections nonetheless continue to be very slow.
Meanwhile, on September 14 this year, a Rangoon court imposed an additional 10-year prison sentence on the jailed Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Sithu Zeya, 21, on a charge of circulating material online that could "damage tranquility and unity in the government" under the Electronic Act. His combined jail sentence is now 18 years. Fourteen video journalists employed by DVB are still being held after receiving long jail sentences. The detained DVB journalists include Hla Hla Win, who is serving a 27-year sentence, and Sithu Zeya. His father, U Zeya, is serving a 13-year sentence for supervising DVB's team of video journalists. Ngwe Soe Lin, is serving a 13-year sentence for helping to make a DVB documentary about children orphaned by Cyclone Nargis (which received a Channel 4 award), and Win Maw is serving a 17-year sentence.
Nay Phone Latt, owner of three Rangoon Internet cafés, was sentenced in 2008 to 20 years and six months in prison for posting blog entries about the difficulties that young Burmese encounter in expressing themselves freely. He is still jailed, left out of the October government amnesty.
Secretary Clinton's visit should therefore not only open a new chapter but also set a new tone in the U.S-Burma relationship, ask for relevance as one condition to build a new partnership and not be satisfied with "flickers" that hide the reality.
The ASEAN approved Burma's leadership for 2014, believing that it would serve as an incentive to continue political reforms. Although it is too soon to say if this major gesture from the regional organization was too early, it should push the U.S government to continue to firmly announce its expectations for fundamental freedoms and reforms.
The European Union has also welcomed the release of political prisoners in Burma and took this opportunity to ask for more reforms before lifting any economic sanctions. If the Burmese government is ready to lead the ASEAN, it has to be in total conformity of its charter, which requires members to respect "the principles of democracy, the rule of law and good governance, respect for and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms."
Reporters Without Borders has been asking for years for the release of all journalists and netizens, who are, among many prisoners of conscience, still imprisoned on the basis of illegitimate charges. Bloggers, journalists and all other media workers must eventually be allowed to operate freely in Burma. This will require major reforms, including repeal of the Electronics Act, which has so often been used to censor all forms of expression in Burma.