The Burmese government is tightening censorship again after appearing to have relaxed controls in the wake of initial reforms under President Thein Sein's nominally civilian administration, according to local journalists.
The country's censorship bureau, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), has instructed local media not to 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.
Any suggestions of reorganizing student unions and clamor for the release of remaining political prisoners is being seen as inappropriate, local journalists said.
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.
"The PSRD noted down the censorship directives on draft news reports submitted by journals and has also issued verbal warnings," a local journalist told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The journalist said that press freedom was significantly set back over the last week as many news items were censored by the PSRD.
Local journalists also pointed out that there was a lack of a clear policy regarding news publication.
Another source said that PSRD director Tint Swe, who only three months ago told RFA that his own department should be closed down as part of reforms being pursued by the new government, personally issued the new censorship orders.
“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 had told RFA in October.
Coverage of a press conference on Saturday by leading members of the 88 Generation Students group released from prison on Jan. 13 did get permission to go to press, but only after heavy censorship, a local journal editor was quoted by the Irrawaddy online exile publication as saying.
“We were allowed to report their support of Aung San Suu Kyi and political reforms, but not their calls for creating a new student union or their vow to fly the peacock flag [symbolizing Burma's pro-democracy movement],” said the editor, who also asked not to be identified.
“We also couldn't report their views on Burma's ethnic conflicts, which they attributed to the government's dishonesty in dealing with the ethnic groups,” the editor added.
“People in the international community and some political groups are saying that we have press freedom now, but it isn't true,” the Irrawaddy quoted one Rangoon-based reporter as saying. “The situation is actually going back to the way it was.”
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 had to send drafts of their reports to the censorship department previously.
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 may 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.
Asked by ABC Radio Australia if the opposition leader would have free and fair access to Burmese media, Ko Ko Hlaing said, “Suu Kyi will have equal opportunities and equal chances provided by the government media and also other media,” Mizzima reported.
Reported by RFA's Burmese service. Translated by Khin May Zaw. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.