Burma’s censorship chief insisted Wednesday that the country’s censorship board will be abolished in “a matter of months,” despite recent reports of a rollback on press freedoms in the lead-up to elections.
Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), repeated the claims he had made in an interview with RFA three months earlier that the department would be abolished, even as reports surfaced on Monday from journalists in the country that his office had censored several news items over the previous week.
“The new Press Law, which is still in the process of being enacted, will guarantee freedom of expression in Burma,” Swe told RFA in an interview by telephone on Wednesday.
“It won’t take too long to adopt the Press Law—it would just be a matter of months after discussions at the upcoming parliament session [starting Jan. 27],” he said.
Swe said that the law had already been drafted by Burma’s Ministry of Information and sent to the Attorney General’s office for approval.
“Once it’s adopted, the censorship department will be abolished."
In October, Tint Swe had told RFA that the board would be shuttered “in the near future.”
“Press censorship is nonexistent in most other countries as well as among our neighbors, and as it is not in harmony with democratic practices, press censorship should be abolished in the near future,” Tint Swe said in the earlier interview.
But only last week, reporters within Burma informed RFA that the PSRD had noted down censorship directives on a number of draft news reports submitted to the board by journals and had also issued several verbal warnings to media outlets.
They said that press freedom had been significantly set back over the last week as many news items were censored by the PSRD.
Local journalists also pointed out that Burmese officials have not provided them with a clear policy regarding news publication.
Specifically, journalists said, the PSRD had instructed local media to not use or to tone down news about democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi's call for the release of remaining political prisoners and the need for rule of law, as well as comments by leaders of the popular 88 Generation Students group.
They added that any suggestion of reorganizing student unions or clamor for the release of remaining political prisoners in the country is being seen as inappropriate.
The PSRD also instructed the local media to completely black out publication of a decision last week by the official Buddhist monastic council to evict the abbot of the Sadhu Pariyatti Monastery in Rangoon for his outspoken political views.
Also regarded as taboo were complaints of campaign irregularities by Burma's ruling and military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) ahead of April 1 elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy are participating for the first time since 1990.
Journalists said Tint Swe had personally issued the censorship orders.
Tint Swe denied the charges Wednesday, saying his department had continued to apply the same principles of censorship to the press that it had always used.
“Currently, we are not tightening censorship,” Tint Swe said, reiterating that the government would only push forward with reforms.
“As I told you three months ago, press censorship will definitely be abolished. The President [Thein Sein] and our minister [of information] have been clearly saying the same thing—that censorship won’t exist after the Press Law is adopted,” he said.
“Therefore, we are not going back. We will be going forward and moving towards freedom.”
The PSRD, set up more than four decades ago when the military took over the country, has eased restrictions on certain media coverage since President Thein Sein's government took power in March after elections called by the then-ruling military junta, which had been accused of blatant human rights abuses.
All media publications previously had to send drafts of their reports to the censorship department.
Since June 10 last year, the department allowed publications dealing with entertainment, sports, technology, health, and children's issues to practice “self censorship,” whereby editors themselves were given the task of omitting materials that could be deemed as sensitive instead of sending their draft reports to the department.
Publications that covered politics and other issues deemed sensitive by the authorities, however, have to continue sending drafts of their reports to the department.
But restrictions on coverage for Aung San Suu Kyi’s activities were eased while authorities also lifted a longstanding ban on international news websites, exiled Burmese news websites, and YouTube.
Some groups said the government may be tightening censorship now because of the April 1 by-elections in which Aung San Suu Kyi's party will challenge the ruling party.
But Ko Ko Hlaing, the chief political adviser to Thein Sein, said Monday that the government is serious about having the by-elections be free and fair, and that Aung San Suu Kyi will have the same access as other party leaders to the media, according to exile Mizzima News Agency.
Reported by Kyaw Kyaw Aung for RFA’s Burmese service. Translated by Kyaw Kyaw Aung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.