Cablegate: Journalism in Burma: Newspapers, the Censor Board, and The

DE RUEHGO #0104/01 0560145
R 250145Z FEB 10




E.O. 12958: N/A
SUBJECT: Journalism in Burma: Newspapers, the Censor Board, and the


1. (SBU) Burmese journalists face a restricted and uncertain
environment, but a literate public has fueled a recent expansion of
privately owned newspapers in urban areas. Self-censorship is
prevalent and the Censor Board is heavy handed, though editors
generally get along with the current director. Journalists see the
upcoming elections as a huge challenge. They view their role as not
only reporting on the campaigns, but also explaining the
fundamentals of democracy -- yet it's not clear at this stage how
much leeway the Censor Board will ultimately allow. End summary.

Embassy Journalism Training

2. (SBU) The Embassy Public Affairs section has funded a variety
of journalism training programs, such as sending Burmese reporters
to conferences abroad and bringing American trainers to Burma to
lead courses on such topics as reporting, photojournalism, feature
writing, and newsroom management. Embassy-funded trainers have
worked primarily with privately owned newspapers directly, but one
grantee also led workshops for the government-sponsored Myanmar
Journalists and Writers Association (MJWA, the majority of whose
members are from privately owned newspapers). These training
programs have given the Embassy and our grantees unique access to
newsrooms and the Censor Board.

The Media Environment in Burma

3. (SBU) Burma has very limited press freedom, but a literate
urban public with a strong reading tradition and an interest in
politics. Burma has among the fastest growing newspaper industries
in Southeast Asia; the number of weekly newspapers has gone from
just a handful 10 years ago to approximately 150 today. Most of the
newspapers -- published primarily in Rangoon and to a lesser extent
in Mandalay -- cover non-political issues, like sports and
entertainment, with very little hard news about events in Burma or
the outside world.

4. (SBU) Members of the press corps with credible training are few
in Burma, and the country has no formal journalism education
programs. Burma's best journalists -- including virtually all of
the top publishers and editors -- have received training, though,
usually outside the country. The sharp increase in the number of
private weekly journals has driven demand for more journalists, and
many of these new hires have little or no training. Reporters are
hindered by a restricted, heavily-censored environment and poor
English language skills, and earn meager pay. Nevertheless, they
appear dedicated and curious.

The Influence of the Censor Board

5. (SBU) The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (read:
Censor Board) bans on average 20-25 percent of all stories in a
given periodical. Because Burmese reporters tend to get paid only
for the stories that make it into the newspaper, self-censorship is
prevalent. We understand the censors themselves are risk averse and
reluctant to allow articles that could get them into in trouble.
Censor Board decisions are final in most cases, but if editors have
decent relationships with the censors, especially with the director
Tint Swe, they can argue for inclusion of stories, or at least
certain elements of them, and sometimes reach a compromise. Some
Burmese journalists expect private journals will be able to publish
daily after the elections (currently only government-owned newspaper
can print daily). However, most editors think officials will only
grant licenses for those dailies that least deserve them -- i.e.,
those that studiously avoid sensitive or controversial coverage.

6. (SBU) Current Censor Board director Tint Swe seems to be
reasonably well-liked by journalists, particularly in comparison to
his predecessor. Several leading editors have indicated they can
consult freely with him. A number of media representatives have
also noted slightly increased space to report on the United States
and international events. For his part, Tint Swe believes the
post-election period will bring changes to Burma's private media.
He has said more than once that he believes the Censor Board's days
are numbered. Practically, it would be hard for the Censor Board,
as currently constituted, to manage the dramatic workload increase
should the GOB allow daily newspapers; thus, some here expect an
eventual shift to a self-censorship model akin to China's. For now,
though, it remains the case that Tint Swe is a former military
officer. He may aspire for greater press freedom in Burma; but he
continues to toe the line and follow instructions from Nay Pyi Taw.

RANGOON 00000104 002 OF 002

Covering the Election

7. (SBU) We expect newspapers will be very cautious in their
election coverage. Editors have told our trainers that they know
nothing about elections, and many admit that they have not seen a
copy of the 2008 constitution. In addition to being uninformed,
many Burmese journalists are deeply cynical about the elections.
Journalists tell us many average Burmese feel similarly: ignorant
and cynical about elections. Journalists see themselves facing the
burdens of informing their readers about the fundamentals of
democracy, citizens' rights under the eventual election laws, and
the nuts and bolts of voting while also eventually reporting on the
campaigns. Observers expect censored, selective coverage of
election preparations could benefit government-affiliated
candidates. Some editors have told us they may opt not to report on
the elections at all if they can't do so fairly.

8. (SBU) No one knows where the GOB will draw the line regarding
election coverage. Censor Board director Tint Swe said that
journalists would be able to interview all candidates without prior
permission and publish what is said. However, a police Special
Branch officer described to one of our trainers the following rule
for journalists covering the election: "Don't behave like an
activist and don't send information out of the country." Editors
plan to seek further guidance once the election laws are published.

Comment: Building Journalism Skills

9. (SBU) Despite continued media restrictions in Burma, Post has
been able to arrange successful journalism training programs in
Rangoon. The reporters, editors, and even the Censor Board director
-- to a more limited degree -- are interested in strengthening the
role of media in the country. As is the case with so many other
aspects of Burmese society, however, the whims of the generals can
set back progress quickly and painfully. With the elections
approaching, we aim to continue providing training opportunities to
journalists and will monitor how much the government allows -- or
restricts -- the flow of information.

© Scoop Media

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