Freedom of the press in Burma

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by Ayoub El Moudne, translated by Charlotte Gray

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It was during an always unlucky Friday 13th at the Geneva Press Club that Ma Thida’s press conference took place. But who is Ma Thida? She is a surgeon and a writer. But she is also a former political prisoner, and, for some, a hero – and it is impossible to mention heroic political prisoners without remembering the late great Nelson Mandela and the select group that both he and Ma Thida are a part of: people who are improving the world through peaceful action in their own country. Today, her courage, her drive, and her love for an honourable debate can be seen in her two magazines, as well as her radio show for young people. But is the press, which she represents, really free? This is the theme behind the “Freedom of the press in Burma” question and answer session.

There were about fifteen people attending the meeting, including experienced- and “Reporters Without Borders” journalists, and on the stage was Dr Ma Thida. The event took place in English, and the atmosphere was heavy with curiosity.
In 1962, there were no international newspapers in Burma. Literature and news were censored. From the 2000s, private newspapers were authorised only under strict state control. It was only the state that granted licences, and nothing could be said against China or Korea. It has only been since 2010 and the change in government that this pressure has been lifted. Even so, in all this time and always following the adage “literature needs freedom – and freedom needs literature,” Ma Thida has not stopped writing what she thinks.
Ma Thida will insist that the press is always under pressure. Financial pressure on one hand and excessive State control on the other is discussed in “State control twice before printing, once after printing”. There are still some subjects which are difficult to approach.

It is with this that the question and answer session begins.
Question: Is talking about ethnic minorities difficult for the population?
– Yes, definitely. It’s problematic because of our history. There are several very poor regions in Burma, and these regions only have access to poor education. Therefore, past conflicts are part of our very lives. There is also a problem with the language barrier. Few regions have a newspaper in their own language.
Question: Has the traditional media, which has existed since the former dictatorship, changed its policies?
– No. They follow the Minister of Information, and therefore they are part of the propaganda. The daily newspapers are only sold in regions under governmental control. New laws forbid journalists from being prosecuted for carrying out their work, but they have not changed the propaganda situation. This is particularly true as the Minister of Information has just established public service broadcasters, supposedly in the interests of freedom of information, but really it’s only to increase propaganda. Nothing has changed.
Question: Are there new, qualified journalists in Burma that can be recruited? Are there journalism schools? Do young people want to be journalists despite the difficulties?
– There are not enough journalists to hire and those who we have aren’t really competent. Young people are really interested in journalism, but they are so resigned about the situation
in the country that they would prefer to look for a job elsewhere that would allow them to further democracy.
Question: Freedom of the press has returned to Burma, but leaders are staying abroad, do you think they should come back to stimulate the country?
– If they return, they will have to make agreements with the government. It is, once again, problematic.
Question: Are the 2015 elections already on the agenda or are there other priorities?
– It’s being discussed, but at the moment there is a focus on the constitution and the peace process.
Question: Do you now, in your daily life, feel free as a journalist? Are people still afraid?
– Yes, compared with before, I feel free. As I said, there are no more reasons for journalists to be frightened. From now on there is the right to criticise the government, but anyway I have always thought that, regardless of propaganda and control, I will always be freed to do what I want. People are still scared as the State doesn’t really cooperate with change.
Question: We have spoken of peace, education, and freedom. What else is changing? Do you think that the government has a responsibility to orchestrate these changes?
– We need to work together for peace and democracy, rights, and public services. It’s up to the State to do all this. It’s trying to manage these issues, but it’s not doing anything.
Question: New types of media are very important, as we can see in China and Russia. Is there anything of the sort in Burma?
– There is no social mechanism which keeps people up to date with new types of media in the country. Only about 1% of people have internet access.
Question: People in Burma always approve of the persecution of Muslims. What are you doing to oppose that in your newspaper?
– We interview as many Muslims as possible, but very few of them are brave enough to talk. They are forbidden to talk.
Question: It seems that change will take a long time. Several actors will appear and disappear. What kind of person and institution would you like to see to help with change? What is your political dream? Is it to become a Minister?
– I would like to see students and minorities. For the final question, I have already been asked that – she smiles – I only want to be a good citizen. You know, I could have gone into exile, but I stayed to change my people, not another country’s people.

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