Reporters will be able to work in Burma for up to a year under new regulations aimed at ensuring wider press freedom
Foreign reporters will soon be able to work for up to a year in Burma on short and long-term journalist visas after new regulations were introduced aimed at ensuring wider press freedom.
The new rules are intended to give local and foreign reporters greater access to government officials and will come into effect around mid-April, deputy minister for information and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut said told the Guardian.
“In the past, the government issued journalist visas to try to control the journalist’s movements,” he said. “Now we are issuing the visa to allow the journalist access to the ministries … If he wants to interview a government official but doesn’t have a journalist visa, he may not get access [to the official].”
The move, which means reporters will no longer have to fly in using tourist visas or file under pseudonyms, follows the recent dismantling of some, but not all, of Burma’s draconian censorship laws and the seeming removal of most foreign journalists from the country’s blacklists.
It also follows training sessions overseen by Unesco and local media late last year aimed at teaching government ministers how to deal with the press, U Ye Htut said.
“In the past, many journalists would enter Myanmar [Burma] with tourist visas, so if [government officials] made the mistake of talking with journalists, they would lose their job. That is why they are very careful, and sometimes very reluctant, to talk with foreign journalists,” he explained.
Each ministry now has its own spokesperson to deal with media inquiries, as ordered by President Thein Sein. A former general who came to power in 2011, Thein Sein has initiated extensive political and economic reforms in a country formerly ruled for five decades by a military junta, which kept the news highly censored and the ministers tight-lipped.
The new media regulations will require journalists to submit a CV and letter of recommendation from their media outlet for official approval. If granted, reporters will be issued with free press cards, as well as visas for the period of time they intend to work in Burma. Journalists travelling in and out of the country could be granted multi-entry visas of between three and six months, the minister said, while visas of up to one year will be given to those intending to open a foreign news bureau.
Reporters who enter the country on tourist visas after the new rules come into effect and choose to report will not be penalised for doing so unofficially, U Ye Htut said, though they may have difficulty securing official interviews.
He added that local reporters will be granted their own press cards through the Independent Press Council around April as well.
Rights groups gave the news a cautious welcome, warning that it was still not known how visa criteria would be assessed, or whether journalists would be allowed to criticise the government and report freely.
“This could be a positive development towards greater media freedom in Burma because in the past, ministers and military officials would never speak with foreign journalists,” said the Committee to Protect Journalists’ south-east Asian representative, Shawn Crispin.
“But we have some journalists here in Bangkok who were allowed [into Burma] last year and reported somewhat critically, and now they are seeing long delays in the processing of their next journalist visas, some for two or three months already.”
Another unknown was whether the country’s new media censorship guidelines – released in August last year – would also apply to foreign journalists living and working in Burma, said Phil Robertson, of Human Rights Watch. They include regulations that “the state, and economic policies of the state, will not be negatively criticised”, among others.
Local and foreign journalists reporting about Burma may also have been the target of a recent mass email hack by “state-sponsored attackers”, although it is not yet clear who or where those attackers may be. The email hacks follow a series of cyberattacks on various Burmese media outlets, including weekly journal The Voice and the Eleven media group, although the government’s own website was also targeted three times last week, the Myanmar Times reported.