Photo: Presidential spokesman and deputy information minister Ye Htut (Ye Htut/Facebook)
The Hawaii-based East-West Centre, established to forge links between the United States and the Asia-Pacific, is hosting the fourth iteration of its biennial media conference in Rangoon this week. In many respects, it serves as a testament to how far press freedoms in Burma have progressed over the past two years.
But true freedom of the press in Burma remains a long way off, and the government has shown dangerous signs of backsliding in recent weeks. Signals from the president’s office indicate the press will continue to have a much wider berth than just a few years ago, but the government intends to keep it firmly under heel.
In his opening address at the conference, deputy information minister and presidential spokesman Ye Htut touted the benefits of a free press, but cautioned that it must be responsible. “The president believes that the media has a clear role in democracy,” he said. “They must be in the public space, in which the democratic discourse takes place. It is a vital process for the evolution of democratic culture in our society.”
Despite this effusive praise for the role of the press, recent attempts to undermine it tell a different story. Five journalists from the previously obscure Unity Weekly journal were arrested last month for alleging the existence of a chemical weapons factory in central Burma’s Pauk township, and are currently facing conviction under Burma’s Official Secrets Act.
Ye Htut dismissed the notion that the Unity case signified an attack on press freedom, framing it as an issue of national security. “I think even the United States government would respond with the same action, concerning national security, like Snowden,” he told DVB on the sidelines of the conference. “But we will guarantee that they will get a fair trial and that they will enjoy all their legal rights during the procedure.”
The government has also taken steps to limit the ability of foreign journalists to stay in the country. In February, the government announced new, restrictive rules for foreign journalists entering the country. While journalists affiliated with established bureaus can officially be granted visas of up to six months, those coming independently or for short visits will now be granted single-entry visas lasting one month. Robin McDowell, a reporter for The Associated Press (AP), had previously been told her agency’s visa issues were the result of its reporting on sectarian violence in northern Arakan State.
“Last year, between the World Economic Forum in June and the Southeast Asia games in December, we tried to introduce a new visa recommendation policy, a three-month multiple entry visa, which could be extended in Yangon [Rangoon],” Ye Htut explained. “But at the end of December, at the end of the SEA games, we reviewed that policy, and we found that nearly 100 foreign journalists are still working in our country, some of them for nearly one year.”
Despite the official policy laid out early last month, a number of journalists affiliated with established bureaus in Burma have been issued short-term visas or have had existing long-term visas reduced, despite bureau affiliations that should allow them to stay in the country long-term.
Ye Htut claimed the issues caused by the AP’s reporting were the result of its poor “ethical standards,” and not its coverage of sectarian violence itself, and criticised the measures taken by the agency to protect its sources against reprisal. “The issue with the Associated Press is that they are only using anonymous sources, without verifying with the government,” he said. “Even if you look at the AP code of conduct, there are very strict criteria about using these kinds of unconfirmed sources.” The government routinely limits journalists’ access to sensitive parts of the country, often forcing reporters to rely on second-hand accounts.
Hannah Beech, TIME Magazine’s China bureau chief, was denied a visa to attend the conference, exemplifying the political pressures foreign journalists are subject to. Last June,Ye Htut’s office banned Beech’s article on inter-religious violence in Burma, which featured notorious monk Wirathu on the cover, proclaiming him to be the “Face of Buddhist Terror” and describing his “religious chauvinism.”
On Sunday, Ye Htut stated that Beech’s presence at the conference “could bring undesirable consequences on the event and to her,” and therefore she would not be issued a journalist visa. The Ministry of Information stated that Time journalists would be welcome to apply for journalist visas at “appropriate” times in the future.
While the government has become much more accessible to journalists over the past two years, Ye Htut claimed the ministries still have a long way to go. “They don’t clearly understand the concept of the right to information. There has to be trust between the government officials and journalists,” he said.
Hundreds of new media outlets have sprung up across Burma over the past few years, and Ye Htut urged them to improve their reporting standards. “I appreciate that while some of the media agencies are young and lack adequate resources… the quality of the news and ethical standards are questioned by many people,” he said. “Most entry-level journalists do not have training in basic journalism.”
Ye Htut emphasised the fluid nature of Burma’s media landscape, and underscored the fact that nothing is set in stone yet. “There are some people who doubt our media reforms and Myanmar’s reform agenda as a whole,” he said. “Yes, over the last few years, we made some mistakes. We are not perfect. We still have challenges to overcome. But we have a clear vision of a new Myanmar [Burma]. We have a reform strategy. And most importantly, we have the political will to implement it.”