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CAPSULE REPORT: Mizzima reviews military junta's record on censorship, media sector relations

(Mizzima/IFEX) - The following is an 18 June 2007 report from Mizzima News, an interim member of IFEX:

Burma needs to relax censorship and support journalists

There are several fields in Burma (Myanmar) in which the private sector moves much faster than its public counterpart. Of these, the private print media - especially private news publications - is far outpacing its public competition. And, instead of encouraging cooperation in the business of informing and entertaining news-thirsty readers, the government gives these independent outlets little room in which to operate.

As regards censorship in Burma, there are unwritten rules practised by the military junta since the 1962 coup that terminated democratic governance.

Rule One: The government does not want controversial subjects to be discussed among the public. Therefore, it censors such items as "not newsworthy".

Rule Two: The Office of Scrutiny does not engage in dialogue with any public or private organisation over published items.

Rule Three: Critical thinking about Burma is ignored by the government. In an attractive market, the military government continues to suppress the growth of private news publications, while claiming that it has granted more journal publishing licenses. But this increase in licensure is measured in quantity, not quality.

The Ministry of Information has so far granted 270 publishing licenses - 120 for weekly newspapers and 150 for monthly magazines. Out of weekly papers, according to the government's Office of Press Scrutiny, 21 are for general news journals.

However, with the number of private news journals on the rise and a population of nearly 55 million, the country is increasingly relying on independent papers rather than the state-run media to stay informed, even if the quality of local journalism is still lacking.

People increasingly trust news coverage by the private media over state-owned news outlets. The government also recognizes the strength of the private media, and in part cooperates with them to keep the public informed of its own news agenda.

Meanwhile, growing competition has weeded out the weaker journals and led to better standards in the industry, say some analysts, adding that it is a sign of a market-focused economy. More than 30 companies have already surrendered their publishing licenses in the last nine months alone, due to lack of technical know-how and poor financing.

Government cooperation with private news journals is increasing, with reporters from private journals allowed to cover state news conferences. Previously only foreign correspondents and state-owned news agencies were invited.

However, in one instance, the government banned a senior journalist with "The Myanmar Times", a privately owned weekly, from attending state-sponsored press conferences after he raised some probing questions at a conference held in November 2006.

Criticism of private journals is still widespread and the quality of reporting in many falls far short of the public's expectations. However, this is not necessarily due to the performance of journalists working with the publications concerned, but rather heavy censorship of the government's Office of Press Scrutiny.

The Office's stand effectively kills the talent of newer professionals in the industry, turning a blind eye to the industry's development mantra: "The more flexible censorship is, the better the media industry will be able to operate."

News reports are expected to benefit both the government and the public. In practice, it is mainly the junta which benefits, resulting in deteriorating trust between the government and the public, an alarmingly obstructive factor in the country's progress.

Government censors should be more flexible so that the burden on journalists and publishers is reduced. It is especially relevant in a developing country like Burma, which still needs censorship because of the low education level of a majority of the people.

The government sometimes blocks information to protect its image, regardless of the interests of citizens. Yet a protected image is nothing amid an increasingly interconnected world.

According to a retired senior minister, Burma cannot win the trust of others until the others begin to speak positively of the government. For such a purpose, a robust media can benefit the country and the government, because domestic news outlets can balance negative reports from foreign news sources. This remains true even if some observers remain sceptical about whether Burma's fledgling private media can match the quality of foreign news outlets.

Private newspapers can act as ambassadors abroad, but using state-owned media to respond to negative reports is ineffective. Most countries use private media rather than state-run media to clarify or counter outside reports.

The government should look for new and better ways to communicate to local people and the outside world. Such an approach would result in a healthy culture of communication between the government and the public. What Burma's nascent private media needs in order to succeed in this objective is more investment, more trained journalists, better printing technology and a change in government policies.

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