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Burma: Shackling press freedom, Reform will be futile

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The 3rd May is the World Press Freedom Day. The day highlights the importance of the media freedom. The day also draws attention to freedom of expression, speech, writing, publishing and distribution of news among journalists, citizens of all nations and peoples of different classes living around the world.

World Press Freedom Day is an important day for Burma or Myanmar concerning freedom of the press. General public had been subjected to the censorship-board or Press Scrutiny and Registration Division for more than half a century.

"World Press Freedom Day in 2015" notably marks the 20th anniversary of the 'Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action', which concerns gender equality in society and the media. Regarding this broad background, media societies should support free and independent journalism, and quality reporting, in the context of the information age.
This 'Theme' covers how media should focus on self-regulation issues, the challenges to investigative journalism, and hate-speech.

It is too important to support the issues of women in media management and representation of women in the media. In addition, it is also important to protect the media and journalists' sources including digital access to information. Freedom of the newsroom is also an essential matter that relies on accuracy, in-depth and important reporting on matters of special public concern which requires careful and resilient research.

Freedom of the press is the basic right of all human beings. Primarily in independent societies, freedom of the press means the right to circulate opinions in print without limitation by the government. In the early days of the existing quasi-civilian Government of Burma, the termination of press censorship, permitting private newspapers and creation of an Interim Press Council are signs of steps forward concerning freedom of the press.

However, contrary to such positive move, in July last year, five journalists from the Unity Weekly Journal have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for "disclosing state secrets" after their weekly reported on the complex of an alleged chemical weapons plant. They were imprisoned under the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act, a British colonial law before the country's independence in1948.

Besides, in October 2014, 5 journalists from Bi Mon Te Nay Journal were sentenced to two years behind bars. It was the highest punishment under Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code.

Moreover in same October, Ko Par Gyi, a freelance journalist, was shot dead while under arrest of a government military unit. Although the censorship board has been abolished, the death of Ko Par Gyi is an appalling reminder of the ongoing limitations on media freedom and democratic reforms in Myanmar.

It was also regrettable that the media reports in March 2015 said two reporters were among some 130 people detained amid a "brutal" crackdown on student-boycotters by police in which several reporters were beaten.

News Journals said that other journalists were also beaten on 6 March in a similar incident while attempting to cover protests in Letpadan. The private journals also reported that police in Yangon detained two photojournalists on 4 March as they covered a protest of striking garment factory workers. According to reliable sources, authorities reportedly refused to return the two photojournalists' equipment following their release and issued warnings against their publications in state-owned newspapers.

Therefore, journalists in Burma have to continue their jobs facing threats and hindrances in the face of democratic reforms including media freedom. Burma ranks 145th of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders 2014 world press freedom index.

However, the role of the media may be more essential during election period in November this year. Citizens have to rely definitely on information reported by the media to learn about the competing candidates, the primary issues being concerned and the policy of the different political parties. Without media freedom, making the most vital decision relating to choose a right candidate would be particularly more difficult.

So, it is very important that the freedom of expression and the press must be guaranteed and protected as democratic elections are going to be held. Media personnel, such as journalists, reporters and editors, should be able to do their jobs without restraints. Even more important is to promise the right to seek and receive information during the upcoming elections.

The public has a right to be informed on a subject of general awareness similar to constitutional analysis. Journalists who are just doing their job must be protected. Journalists should not be incarcerated because of their news coverage.

Actually, Interim Press Council was formed to safeguard the freedom of the press. It should be in harmony with the international standards. This Council needs to defend not only the freedom of the press, but also to look after the safety measures of the journalists.

The controversial Printers and Publishers Regulation Law, drafted by the Ministry of Information, is still forceful because influence of censorship still lies with the authorities. It is clear that the publishing law still gives the Ministry of Information the power to revoke publishing licenses forcefully.

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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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