April 1 marked the start of a new era of press freedom in Myanmar as four new privately-owned daily newspapers arrived on newsstands. Since 1964, the government had only permitted the publication of state-run newspapers.
A source for Reuters reported that "all four papers sold out quickly today," indicating public demand for independent journalism in Myanmar.
The government has also relaxed rules for foreign journalists and news agencies. The Associated Press announced Monday that it would open a bureau in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar.
In 2012, the government ended a longstanding pre-publication censorship law and stated that it would begin taking applications for private daily newspapers. Myanmar’s government made several important steps towards press freedom in 2012, including releasing and pardoning imprisoned journalists.
However, Myanmar has not completely relinquished control over the country’s press. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says that current laws such as the Electronics Act of 2004 and Internet Act of 2000 continue to lead to "self-censorship" to avoid harsh punishments. In addition, a new draft media law threatens to continue previous censorship practices.
According to CPJ’s Senior South Asia Representative Shawn Crispin, "If passed in its current form, the draft law will essentially replace [Myanmar's] old censorship regime with a similarly repressive new one."
CPJ has also reported attacks on journalists covering the recent violence against Muslims in Myanmar. They reference a number of incidents where rioters, including Buddhist monks, threatened journalists and destroyed or seized their camera footage.
It will be interesting to see how the new dailies cover the recent violence against Muslims, which one source estimated has killed up to 200 people. Though Muslims make up just 4% of Myanmar’s population of 60 million, they have long been the targets of communal violence. In 2012, hundreds of Rohingya Muslims were killed and thousands displaced in riots.
This year’s violence differs in that it was directed against Muslims of Meiktila, who unlike the Rohingya, have citizenship. Unfortunately, the nature of the violence against them has been quite similar, including the widespread destruction of homes.
The recent violence reminds international observers of the immense human rights issues remaining in Myanmar. Despite the government’s recent denunciation of the riots, they have previously contributed to the negative environment facing Myanmar’s Muslims.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the Muslim minority in Myanmar "routinely experience[s] strict controls on a wide range of religious activities, as well as government-sponsored societal violence."
While Myanmar should indeed be applauded for allowing an independent press to join the public debate in the country, this progress cannot override concerns about other human rights issues, including the status of Muslims in Myanmar. Hopefully, the new papers will take the opportunity to report on these atrocities and potentially make a difference on the issue inside Myanmar.