Myanmar has a rich history of journalism. Before the British colonization of Myanmar, the local media was very active and popular among the masses as well as the royals. The Military junta rule is responsible for the large-scale degradation of journalism in Myanmar. The constitution provides for freedom of speech and the press: however, the government prohibits the exercise of these rights in practice. Reporters without Border ranked Burma 174th out of 178 in its 2010 Press Freedom Index. In 2013, Burma moved up to 151st place as a result of political changes in the country. Under Burma’s five decades of military rule, the country’s media environment became one of the most restrictive anywhere on earth.
In 1836, the country’s first newspaper, The Maulmain Chronicle, was published followed by The Rangoon Chronicle in 1853, later renamed to The Rangoon Times. King Mindon was an advocate of press freedom and encouraged the creation of Burma’s first Burmese-language newspaper, Yadanapon Naypyidaw Thadinsa. Mindon Min also established the country’s first indigenous press law, the Seventeen Articles, which safeguarded freedom of the press. Several Chinese, Burmese and English-language newspapers were permitted to report news from around the country and internationally, interviewing politicians and interacting with foreign journalists, contrary to most of Burma’s south-east Asian neighbors.
The media played a prominent role in the resistance against British in Myanmar. Throughout the colonial era, there was a steady increase in the number publications in circulation. In 1911, there were 44 periodicals and newspapers and by the end of the 1930s, there were over 200 newspapers and periodicals in circulation. From the independence of Burma from the United Kingdom in 1948 until 1962, the country experienced a temporary period of democracy and free media. The country had one of the freest presses in Asia, with guarantees of freedom of the press in the Constitution.
After the military coup d’état by Ne Win in 1962, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law was enacted. The journalists quickly responded by forming the Burma Press Council to protect press freedom. Within a month however, several journalists were arrested and publications shut down. This law, still in function, requires all printers and publishers to register and submit copies of their publications to the Press Scrutiny Board, under the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs (now under the Ministry of Information). In 1975, the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1975), Article 157, ensured “freedom of speech, expression and publication to the extent that the enjoyment of such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and of socialism.”
The Memorandum to all printers and publishers concerning the submission of manuscripts for scrutiny was issued by the Printers and Publishers Central Registration Board. It gave explicit guidelines on materials that would be censored, including those whose contents were injurious to the Burmese socialist program, the state ideology, the socialist economy, national unity, security, peace and public order, pornographic in nature, libelous, slanderous, or critical of the national government. That same year, the State Protection Law was issued, allowing authorities to imprison any persons who have been suspected of being a threat to national peace. This law has been the basis for the arrests of many journalists and writers. By 1988, the number of newspapers had decreased from 30 to 8. The media gradually became the monopoly of the military junta under Ne Win.
From 1965 to 2012, Burma did not have freedom of press and all newspapers were government owned. Reforms were passed in August 2012, lifting the censorship laws. Previously, all newspaper articles, regardless of content, were required to pass through the censor board at the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, set up by the Ministry of Information in 2005.
The press environment remains tightly controlled in the country. Journalists are often harassed, arrested or jailed for reporting unfavorable news that reflects badly on the country or the regime. The media is also instructed to vilify opposition members. Burmese media acts as the mouthpiece for the regime, where during the anti-government protests in 2007, it labeled the protesters and blamed foreign media for starting the protests. Several media outlets were closed down after refusing to publish propaganda. However, many outlets stopped publication as a mark of solidarity with the protesters.
Subjects out of bounds for journalists also include discussions of democracy, the legitimacy of the regime, political corruption, HIV/AIDS, the aftermath of natural disasters and the national football team losing, though some attempt to hide criticism amongst words or images. Because the media is restricted from reporting negative events in this way, it can often be unreliable. Words by Aung San Suu Kyi are rarely covered in the media. Similarly, references to the United Nations are rare, as the junta views the organization of trying to overthrow the regime.
Burma has three free of charge, state-owned newspapers that are distributed on a daily basis. Despite the tight press laws, a wide variety of publications were available. Magazines were less affected by the strict press laws compared to newspapers, as many avoided discussion of the political situation. In all, there were 187 weekly journals registered to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division under the Ministry of Information of July 2009.
After the law was repealed in August 2012, sixteen dailies were granted licenses to publish. The 1962 Printing and Registration Act remains in effect, mandating a seven-year prison term for publishing without a license. On 1 April 2013, the first date newspapers could be published freely, four privately owned dailies – The Voice Daily, Golden Fresh Land, The Standard Time Daily, and The Union Daily – hit newsstands.
Myanmar has a short history of a free media. Until august 2012 all publications were censored and journalists had to work within boundaries that were defined by the government. Therefore, it is not surprising that many journalists in Myanmar do not have experience working in a free media environment. The absence of a free media also means there are few journalists with the necessary skills and knowledge of journalism to make an independent media flourish.
There have been moves to lift censorship in the country. Newspapers and other outlets would no longer have to be approved by state censors, but journalists in the country could still face consequences for what they write and say. Progress has been made but the media is still not free.
The existing media laws are still highly restrictive. Legal reform, as initiated by the Press Council and sought by domestic NGOs, is necessary to provide a proportionate legal framework to bring Burma into line with its international obligations. While the laws are restrictive, the transition has meant they are no longer used to the same extent. This marks the dawn of a positive era for journalism in Myanmar.