This essay will offer a snapshot of the state of journalism in the Union of Myanmar, more commonly known as Burma. It will examine the roots and evolution of press journalism, the current situation in broadcasting, and will conclude with the examination of difficulties facing Burmese journalists such as censorship and threat of imprisonment.
Burma has a long and rich tradition of journalism. Lower Burma was established as a British colony after the Treaty of Yandabo in 1826 and within ten years the first western-style newspapers appeared in both English and Burmese. By 1919 Burmese language nationalist newspapers such as Myanmar Alin (New light of Burma) were agitating for change. Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948 with a democratically elected civilian political leadership. At the time Burma had a vibrant network of over 30 newspapers which operated with considerable freedom in a country of much natural wealth and widespread literacy. Burma’s international reputation was honoured by the elevation of U Thant as Asia’s first, and until the incumbent Ban Ki Moon the only, UN Secretary-General in 1961.
All that changed one year later, when General Ne Win staged a coup and installed a military regime that remains in power to this day. Under his junta, the country outlawed all other political parties and adopted the “Burmese way to socialism”. For the press, that way meant a system of licensing that required the registration of all publications. The new military rulers also issued a warning that seditious news was not to be published. Through the 1960s, Ne Win became more tyrannical and further press freedoms were eroded. In 1963 the junta closed down the prestigious Nation and began to publish its own propaganda in the Working People’s Daily. By the end of 1966, they banned all private newspapers and expelled Reuters and the Associated Press correspondents. In 1993 there was just one permitted newspaper, the Government run Working People’s Daily, printed in Burmese and English.
Similarly, the broadcast media of Radio and TV remain, for the most part, tightly controlled by the Government. Radio was a wartime legacy and the Burmese followed the British model when they set up the Burma Broadcasting Service (BBS) after independence. Programmers on the BBS operated with similar freedom to the press until it too was abruptly ended by the military takeover in 1962. Myanmar TV began in 1980 and was supplemented by a military channel in 1990. Both channels are owned and operated by the government and the military. But the government doesn’t totally control the airwaves. While foreign stations such as Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV are officially available only to five star hotels in Yangon (Rangoon) and high ranking officials, enterprising citizens in northern towns have smuggled satellite dishes across the border from China.
Burma has a very active culture of censorship. The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division check every article, editorial, cartoon, advertisement and illustration ahead of publication. Censorship affects the reporting of such varied issues as political opposition, the UN and even the bird flu epidemic. Burma also insists that all fax machines be registered and journalists can earn a seven year prison sentence for having an unauthorised fax, video camera, modem or a copy of a banned publication.
There are other major impediments facing Burmese journalists. The Committee to Protection of Journalists (CPJ) describe Burma as one of the most repressive places for journalists, trailing only North Korea on their “10 Most Censored Countries” list. Even minimal attempts to report the facts are ruthlessly crushed. Two journalists were imprisoned for attempting to film outside the country’s controversial new capital and at least seven journalists were behind bars, making Burma the world’s fifth leading jailer of journalists. The situation is symptomatic of what Human Rights Watch calls “the dire state of human rights in the country".