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Freedom of speech and the press are not guaranteed by law. Many colonial-era laws regulating the press and information continue to be used. Until August 2012 every publication (including newspaper articles, cartoons, advertisements, and illustrations) required pre-approval by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRB) of the Ministry of Information. However, the 2011–2012 Burmese political reforms signaled significant relaxations of the country's censorship policies and in August 2012 the Ministry of Information lifted the requirement that print media organizations submit materials to the government prior to publication.
During the reign of King Mindon Min of Burma's last dynasty, the Konbaung dynasty, the country had one of the freest presses in Asia. The Seventeen Articles, passed in 1873 safeguarded freedom of the press.
In 1878, after Lower Burma was annexed by Great Britain, the Vernacular Press Act was passed, which attempted to repress propaganda against the British government in local language newspapers. In 1898, the Criminal Procedure Code allowed the government to convict people for treason and sedition on grounds of disseminating false information against the state. Soon after, in 1908, the Unlawful Associations Act, was enacted to further stifle freedom of expression. The Official Secrets Act was passed in 1923, which makes it unlawful for any person to possess classified information from the state. A decade later, the Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act was passed, criminalizing possession of telegraphs without government permission. However, there were numerous publications in circulation during the colonial era, with a steady increase. In 1911, there were 44 periodicals and newspapers in circulation, and 103 in 1921. By the end of the 1930s, there were over 200 newspapers and periodicals in circulation, double the amount in 1921.
Burma gained independence in 1948. The Constitution of the Union of Burma (1947) guaranteed freedom of expression, guaranteeing the "liberties of thought and expression". Two years later, the Emergency Provisions Act, which criminalized the spreading of false news knowingly and the slandering of civil servants and military officials was enacted. Despite the law, in the 1950s, Burma had one of the freest presses in Asia, with 30 daily newspapers (in Burmese, Chinese, English, and Indian languages). After the military coup d'état by Ne Win in 1962, the Printers and Publishers Registration Law was enacted. This law, still in function, requires all printers and publishers to register and submit copies of their publications to the Press Scrutiny Board, under the Ministry of Home and Religious Affairs (now under the Ministry of Information). In 1975, the Constitution of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma (1975), Article 157, ensured "freedom of speech, expression and publication to the extent that the enjoyment of such freedom is not contrary to the interests of the working people and of socialism." The Memorandum to all Printers and Publishers Concerning the Submission of Manuscripts for Scrutiny was issued by the Printers and Publishers Central Registration Board. It gave explicit guidelines on materials that would be censored, including those whose contents were injurious to the Burmese socialist program, the state ideology, the socialist economy, national unity, security, peace and public order, pornographic in nature, libelous, slanderous, or critical of the national government. That same year, the State Protection Law was issued, allowing authorities to imprison any persons who have been suspected of being a threat to national peace. This law has been the basis for the arrests of many journalists and writers.
After a military coup d'état, led by the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), in 1988, martial law orders were quickly issued, banning public gatherings, banning activities, publications, and speeches aimed at dividing the Armed Forces, and criminalizing the publication of documents without registration with the state. Martial law orders have since been repealed.
In 1996, several laws were passed to control further dissemination of information in Burma. These include the Law Protecting the Peaceful and Systematic Transfer of State Responsibility and the Successful Performance of the Functions of the National Convention against Disturbances and Oppositions, which prohibits activities aimed at destroying peace, stability, law and order. In addition, it illegalized acts of demeaning the National Convention. Media laws including the Television and Video Act, which requires owners of media players (including televisions, satellites, and videocassette recorders) to obtain licenses from the Ministry of Communications, Posts, and Telegraphs and instituted Video Censorship Boards on domestic-produced videos, and the Motion Picture Law, which requires licenses issued by the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise in making films were passed. Films are subject to censorship by the Motion Picture Censor Board. In addition, The Computer Science Development Law was passed. Under this law, all computer equipment must be approved by the Ministry of Communications, Posts, and Telegraphs. In addition, the distribution, transfer, or acquisition of information that undermines state security, national solidarity and culture, is a criminal offense. SLORC, in 1997, renamed itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). In 2000, the Internet Law, which prohibits posting of writings that are harmful to state interests, was issued by SPDC. Foreign news has also been censored by the government. British Broadcasting Corporation and Voice of America radio broadcasts were jammed, beginning in 1995. Foreign reporters are discouraged from reporting from Myanmar, and are regularly denied entry.
The period saw a number of high-profile journalist arrests, such as Aung Pwint, who was jailed in 1999 for fax-machine ownership and "sending news" to banned papers. In 2008, Myanmar Nation editor Thet Zin was arrested for having a copy of a UN human rights report.
Internet censorship in Burma is classified as selective in the political and Internet tools areas, as substantial in social, and as no evidence of filtering in conflict/security by the OpenNet Initiative in August 2012. Burma is listed as an Internet enemy by Reporters Without Borders in 2011.
According to a study conducted by OpenNet Initiative (ONI) in 2005, Internet censorship was mostly confined to websites related to pro-democracy groups and those on pornography. In addition, 85% of e-mail service provider sites were blocked. The Myanmar Information Communications Technology Development Corporation (MICTDC) licenses cybercafés. Users are required to register, and owners are required to save screen shots of user activity every five minutes, and upon request, deliver them to MICTDC for surveillance. However, cybercafé regulation is loose.
ONI conducted testing in Burma during August 2012. The results of these tests showed that both the scope and depth of content found to be filtered were drastically reduced compared to all previous rounds of ONI testing dating back to 2005. Restrictions on content deemed harmful to state security, however, remained in place. Pornography is still widely blocked, as is content relating to alcohol and drugs, gambling websites, online dating sites, sex education, gay and lesbian content, and web censorship circumvention tools. In 2012 almost all of the previously blocked websites of opposition political parties, critical political content, and independent news sites were accessible, with only 5 of 541 tested URLs categorized as political content blocked.
Since 10 June 2011, PSRB has allowed publications to self-censor publications dealing with entertainment, sports, technology, health and children's issues, allowing editors to circumvent the mandated practice of submitting report drafts to the PSRB prior to publication. This relaxation has occurred in a series of trials over a span of time. In July 2011, Group 1 publications, consisting of 178 journals and magazines, were no longer censored. In the new system, the first strike requires the publication to pay a K5,000,000 (about US$5,000) deposit. The second strike results in a fine that is withdrawn from that deposit. The depleted amount must be topped up by the publisher or the publication is banned. In December 2011, an additional 54 publications in the business and crime genres, were allowed to self-censor their work.
Tint Swe, director of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, has publicly called for the abolition of media censorship in the country, stating that it is not in line with democratic practices. Tint Swe has also indicated that censorship for videos and films would be relaxed, without specifying a time frame.
In September 2011, several banned websites including Youtube, Democratic Voice of Burma and Voice of America have been unblocked. Foreign journalists, including those from the British Broadcasting Corporation and the Voice of America, were issued visas to the country the following month. A presidential adviser indicated that press censorship would be abolished in 2012 under new media legislation.
In January 2012, the Ministry of Information announced that it had forwarded a draft of a new media and press law to the Attorney General's Office for review. The draft law, which will need to be approved by the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (National Parliament), borrows some language from similar laws in Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The draft law, which is adapted from the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, will not be submitted during the second parliamentary session.
In August 2012, the Ministry of Information lifted the requirement that print media organizations submit materials to the government before publication; films remained subject to prior censorship. The head of the PSRB, Tint Swe, told the Agence France-Presse that "censorship began on 6 August 1964 and ended 48 years and two weeks later". The Associated Press described the statement as "the most dramatic move yet toward allowing freedom of expression in the long-repressed nation". However, the ban on private ownership of daily newspapers remained, as did a law forbidding the publication of "information relating to secrets of the security of the state". Journalism organizations expressed cautious optimism at the change, but predicted that "a pervasive culture of self-censorship" would remain, as journalists feared long prison sentences associated with libel and state security charges. As publication legislation slowly ameliorates in Burma in the wake of last August's ban of pre-publication censorship, editorial independence is still hampered by a new requirement for publications to send in published works for post-publication analysis. The PSRD remains a threat to the nation's freedom of press, wielding the same power to audit and sanction publications deemed inflammatory to the Burmese government as it has for the previous five decades.
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