In the past two years, Western nations have seen the new Myanmar president, Thein Sein, usher in a number of reforms, such as allowing an opposition leader, who has spent much of the past 15 years under house arrest, into the Parliament; the release of several hundred political prisoners; and the relaxing of censorship laws, leading to massive rollbacks of international sanctions.
However, activists are quick to point out that Myanmar has a long way to go and cite the unrest in the Rakhine state in the west as perhaps as big a test for Myanmar's media as it is for its government. Though media laws have been relaxed, and the government has promised further loosening of restrictions, news media reporting on politics or sensitive subjects like ethnic unrest are still subject to censorship, as shown by the court cases against the weekly journal The Snapshot, and another weekly publication, the Modern.
“Until now, the government has been relaxing its abusive control of the media but, as it does not know how to assist the media in the new, rapidly emerging political and economic environment … and has initiated at least three prosecutions since the start of the year,” Reporters Without Borders said in a recent statement.
Ethnic and sectarian violence that left more than 60 dead broke out in Rakhine state last month after news spread that a Buddhist woman was raped and killed by three ethnic Rohingya Muslims.
State newspapers highlighted the ethnicity and religion of both the rape and murder victim and the suspects, who were later convicted, using an ethnic slur to refer to the men accused of the crime.
The ministry of information, responsible for controlling the press and publishing state sanctioned news, reacted by indefinitely postponing the lifting of the country-wide practice of pre-screening news copy, initially planned for June 30. It claimed private media had incited violence.
The government accused Myat Khaing, editor of Snapshot, of defamation with the intent of inciting violence for publishing an image of the victim's corpse. A conviction carries a sentence of up to seven years.
“We are facing unjust British laws,” Mr. Myat Khaing’s lawyer told reporters outside the court last week. “The reports in question simply repeated information that had already appeared in state media and on the Internet, and appeared after demonstrations had already occurred.”
The case is scheduled to continue next week, but cound drag on for several months, as delays are typical of the Myanmar court system. The journal is is suspended from publication.
“Conflict in Rakhine state has shone a harsh light on the sensitivity of the media environment and the very fragile nature of the newly recovered, but partial media freedom,” said Reporters Without Borders in a statement.
Myanmar's judiciary still lacks independence, and enforces antiquated and confusing laws drafted in the colonial era that have been amended and changed by several different military governments to support authoritarian rule since 1962.
In an impromptu press conference yesterday, Aung San Suu Kyi stressed the importance of an independent judiciary and rule of law.
“Courts in Myanmar are a tool of the government,” says Nyan Win, legal adviser of Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, pointing out that many rulings are pre-determined, and rarely based on evidence. He says judges still make decisions based on directives handed down from the military.