Private daily newspapers return to Burma

Monday (1 April) heralded the return of private daily newspapers to Burma. Since the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act the state has held highly restrictive powers to license newspapers and publishers creating one of the most hostile environments on earth for a free print media. Since the transition period of the past few years began, President Thein Sein has signalled that the government would liberalise restrictions on the media. Prior to the return of daily newspapers, privately-owned weekly journals had begun to flourish as demand for independent news markedly increased. On 1 February this year, the government launched the process to allow the independent media to bid for daily licenses.

Index on Censorship spoke to journalists and proprietors in Burma during a recent mission to the country in March. The return of independent daily newspapers has not been without incident. The government refused to grant licenses for daily publication to a number of publications including the Eleven Media Group, apparently because their application lacked an official revenue stamp valued at 100 kyats ($0.12). This decision was overturned in March and the group will launch its daily newspaper “The Daily Eleven” symbolically on World Press Freedom Day on May 3 according to AP.

Previously news was published in weekly journals that reviewed news and politics and had to submit all their proofs to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) prior to publication (hence weekly publication). According to state journal the New Light of Myanmar, the termination of the PSRD was signed off at the cabinet meeting of 24 January 2013. Though ominously, the report claimed a new “Copyrights and Registration Division” would be formed under the Information and Public Relations Department.

Index on Censorship views the licensing of newspapers as an unwarranted restriction on freedom of the media. The registration process for daily newspapers in Burma has been particularly restrictive with the application requiring a code of practice, a code of ethics and a code of conduct for the publication — even though the Press Council is working on a series of ethical codes for journalists as part of its on-going negotiations to draft a more proportionate press law.

One editor told Index he had applied for a press license on 21 February and had not yet heard of the result by 13 March. The application was over 80 pages in total and the local authorities stated the application needed to be in both Burmese and English. Journalists told Index several questions on the application for a daily newspaper license concerned the previous political activities of the applicant, which raised concerns that political considerations will be taken into account when awarding the limited number of licenses proposed.

Further advances in media freedom are expected in the coming months, with foreign journalists to be given working visas from mid-April (rather than taking the risk of a tourist visa as is the norm now) and the BBC hoping to broadcast its global news channel in Burma later this year. Reporters Without Borders has moved Burma’s ranking in its Press Freedom Index up 18 places to 151 out of 179 countries.

Yet, old habits die hard. On the first day of new daily newspapers, the government kept the independent media at arm’s length from an official state visit by the President of Singapore Tony Tan Keng Yam with only the official state media allowed into the press conference surrounding the trip. A forthcoming Index report into the state of freedom of expression in Burma will examine these trends in further detail.

Banning Lady Gaga — South Africa’s media take a stand

US pop superstar Lady Gaga’s first sojourn to South Africa has raised the hackles of newspaper editors and religious fundamentalists alike.

Local organisers Big Concerts informed the press that, while journalists would be admitted, no press photographers would be allowed at the Johannesburg and Cape Town concerts on 29 November and 3 December. The usual practice is that press photographers take photos during the first three songs, which are then splashed across newspaper pages the next morning.

Announcing a retaliatory blackout on Gaga’s concerts, Alastair Ottor, online editor for Independent Newspapers,  described it as:

a growing trend toward individuals and organisations imposing these kinds of restrictions on news media. Sporting bodies in particular have started imposing extreme restrictions on news media because of financial interests and this very often extends beyond what we are allowed to cover to how we are allowed to cover it. As the news industry evolves into a new era, placing restrictions on the use of multimedia, or our own photographs, for example, is not something that we as the media should agree to.

Big Concerts, in a typically obtuse response, pleaded ignorance about the reasons for the ban: “This is just how Live Nation (the global concert organisers) does it. They allow journalists and send (publicity) photos out afterwards,” local newspaper Beeld was told.

The South African National Editors Forum (Sanef) released a statement decrying the decision “as a form of press censorship fundamentally in conflict with the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of media in South Africa”.

Sanef, which represents editors and senior journalists, argued that reporters and photographers are “independent observers” whose coverage the public will only trust if they are not interfered with. “While it is clear that the Lady Gaga tour is just another commercial venture, recent controversy in South Africa regarding a number of religious and other organisations which have protested vigorously against even her very presence in the country, makes her visit a matter of real public interest, and not just ‘of interest’ to her fans.”

Sanef added:

Lady Gaga’s freedom to visit South Africa and to perform regardless of any offence she may cause to those opposed to her shows is in fact protected by the freedom of speech provisions in our constitution.

The organisation expressed concern about “a growing trend by commercial event organisers to try to impose censorship or restrictions on the media”.

However, Sanef omitted to mention that the South African press includes multinational companies with a commercial interest in the ownership and distribution of photos.

Gaga has recently been subjected to international press attention exposing her so-called “weight gain”, which would explain why she would want to control the kinds of images that the media elect to distribute of her.

Gaga’s Cape Town concert featured a performance espousing a feminist objection to the control of women’s bodies, as she was wheeled onto the stage hanging among make-believe animal carcases, shouting: “Do you think I am meat? Meat is precisely what we treat women as.”

Independent Newspapers decided to boycott the concerts by not publishing reviews, even though Gaga attracted some 65,000 people in Johannesburg and 40,000 in Cape Town.

But Mail and Guardian online editor Chris Roper ridiculed that stance: “It’s true! Gaga is worse than a Satanist! She’s also an enemy of democracy who spits on our Constitution, and is possibly the worst threat our fledgling country has faced… Seriously, guys? Because Gaga doesn’t want news photographers to take upskirt shots of her meat dress and no veg, it’s a threat to our Constitution?”

Roper pointed out a similarity between Sanef and fundamentalist Christians who started a Facebook page called South Africa: No to Lady Gaga and Satanists. Both, Roper says, represent “outmoded belief systems reacting with antagonism towards the inevitability of the new world. Sanef still seems to believe that it matters a damn to Gaga whether traditional media covers her concerts, and Christians seem to believe that they can stem the tide of rational secularisation.”

The South African Council of Churches, an umbrella body once known for its anti-apartheid resistance, held a small protest at the offices of the government arts and culture department in Pretoria, demanding that Gaga be denied entry into South Africa. A handful of people also protested in Cape Town, insisting that the “bride of Satan” will bring a curse upon South Africa.