In Burma, Media Reform Tests the Limits of Free Speech

Both the government and the opposition are adjusting to the new media ecosystem

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Brent Lewin / Bloomberg / Getty Images

A man checks his mobile phone as another reads a newspaper in front of a store in Rangoon, Burma, on Jan. 22, 2013

On the streets of central Rangoon newspaper stands hug every corner, catering to a public that consumes current affairs with voracious appetite. Happily, press freedom in Burma is now healthier than it has been in decades, according to a report released this month by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which sees “historic progress” for Burmese journalists, despite the many challenges that remain. These reforms have helped keep tabs on the nominally civilian government of President Thein Sein and have led to closer scrutiny of the opposition, including Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). At the same time, the opening of the media sphere has tested the limits of free speech.

Once the rice bowl of Southeast Asia, Burma suffered a half-century of repressive military dictatorship until a new government, staffed by many ex-military men, was installed last year. Thein Sein, the once underling of former junta chief Than Shwe, surprised everyone by freeing hundreds of political prisoners, signing cease-fire agreements with some of the country’s ethnic rebel armies and allowing Suu Kyi to be elected to parliament through a by-election commonly accepted to have been mostly free and fair.

(MORE: Obama in Burma: U.S. President’s Landmark Visit Brings Hope, Criticism)

The fourth estate is now seeing the fruits of reform. In addition to the return of exiled media groups such as the Irrawaddy, Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma, a proliferation of new titles has appeared on the shelves. While figures released in December 2008 state that Burma had 187 registered publications, there are now 301 private weekly journals, according to a report in the Bangkok Post citing Burma’s Publishers’ Registration Department.

The media environment is, for the most part, getting better. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reports that 2012 was the first year since 1996 that Burma, officially known as Myanmar, did not imprison a journalist. Meanwhile, Internet control has been relaxed, precensorship (in which articles had to be submitted to government censors prior to publication) ended and new, less repressive, laws drafted. On Dec. 28, the Information Ministry announced that privately owned dailies would be permitted beginning in April. Nevertheless, substantial challenges remain, including draconian legislation, such as the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act and the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act, which critics claim encourages a climate of self-censorship. Newspapers also risk lawsuits for reporting on sensitive issues. The Rangoon-based The Voice Weekly was sued by Burma’s Ministry of Mining in March last year for printing allegations of corruption inside government ministries, although the case was dropped last week after almost a year of negotiations.

Both the government and the opposition are adjusting to the new system. Apart from building an image in the international media as Burma’s Gorbachev or de Klerk, spearheading democratic reform against all the odds, 67-year-old Thein Sein has been gaining domestic political capital by calling, on his official website, for the resettling of Rohingya Muslims by the U.N. in any other country willing to accept them. This uncompromising stance was applauded by the Burmese Buddhist majority and, in turn, led in no small part to previously unthinkable public admiration for a head of state who rose through the ranks of the brutal former military regime.

The President’s press strategy appears to be a work in progress. While he was quick to censure a local journal, Snapshot, when it risked inflaming the Arakan conflict by printing the picture of the young Buddhist girl whose rape and murder first sparked hostilities, his government nevertheless failed to act while calls for ethnic cleansing spread. Of late, the Burmese President has dialed down his bellicose rhetoric and made conciliatory representations to the U.N. that conceded to considering rights for the much maligned minority, while stopping short of offering full citizenship.

The Buddhist-centric domestic media have also fanned the flames of conflict. “Curfew imposed in Rakhine township amidst Rohingya terrorist attacks,” wrote Eleven News Media in a report on the violence, while The Voice Weekly carried accounts of “Bengali terrorists” planning the riots before burning down their own homes and “escaping by sea.” Pejorative terms like kalar (used to describe any dark-skinned person of South Asian origin) were common parlance when describing the supposed instigators of the sectarian strife. The coverage contributed to threats like, “We should either kill all the kalars in Burma or banish them otherwise Buddhism will cease to exist,” being posted to The Voice WeeklyFacebook page by a reader, demonstrating the perils of a press that remains unsure of the correct boundaries for their coverage.

Now that Internet controls have been relaxed, the government is also experimenting with social media. President’s office spokesman Zaw Htay has more than 25,000 followers on Facebook and even used his page to post inflammatory messages concerning the June discord. “We will eradicate [the Rohnigya] until the end! … We don’t want to hear any humanitarian issues or human rights from others,” he said at the time (his comments were subsequently deleted). To date, their audience is small: only a paltry 1% to 3% of the population has Internet access, according to RSF. Nevertheless, such public access to a top-level government official is remarkable and almost unprecedented throughout Southeast Asia, once again demonstrating how all sides are slowly feeling their way in untried territory.

(MORE: For Burma’s Exiled Journalists, the Promise of Reform Brings Peril and Possibility)

The reforms present new challenges, and some opportunities, for the opposition. Bearing in mind that to display a picture of Suu Kyi in a Burmese newspaper would risk arrest and imprisonment only a few years ago, it has not taken long for “the Lady” to make the transition from hallowed democracy icon to politician fit for stern criticism. Her tepid remarks on the recent escalation of ethnic violence in northern Burma’s Kachin state heralded an open letter from civil-society groups that gained local and international attention. While the foreign press has undoubtedly been harder on the democracy icon, local papers also reported allegations that the NLD accepted donations from cronies of the former junta government. “Some came out to criticize her. I think some publications have asked her about [the donations],” says Kyaw Zwa Moe, the English-language-edition editor of the Irrawaddy, a formerly exiled magazine. “Some journalists are pushing her and senior members of the NLD a bit hard.”

The opposition camp has been less aggressive in presenting its message through social media, although it has been using Facebook to post shots of Suu Kyi meeting various dignitaries. With the government still holding onto sufficient residual censorship tools to deter too much negative publicity, the opposition must become increasingly savvy to prosper in this unfamiliar and evolving media environment. “I’m surprised that the NLD is behind the government with [using the Internet] with all these young activists,” Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, tells TIME. “However, I’m sure that they will catch up.”

Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative to the CPJ, says the opening of media space is positive regardless of who is currently pushing home their advantage. “The relaxation of media restrictions in Burma has allowed for greater press criticism of both the Suu Kyi–led opposition and Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration,” he says. “Both have taken their lumps in the local press, a positive development in terms of open debate and press freedom.”

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