Foreign reporters will soon be able to work for up to a year in Myanmar 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 the middle of April, Burmese Deputy Minister for Information and presidential spokesman U Ye Htut said.
“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.”
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 Myanmar’s draconian censorship laws.
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 with tourist visas, so if [government officials] made the mistake of talking with journalists, they would lose their job. That is why they are reluctant to talk with foreign journalists,” he said.
Each ministry now has its own spokesperson to deal with media inquiries, as ordered by Burmese President Thein Sein.
The regulations will require journalists to submit a resume and letter of recommendation from their media outlet for approval. If granted, reporters will be issued free press cards, as well as visas to work in Myanmar.
Reporters who enter the country on tourist visas after the new rules come into effect and choose to report will not be penalized for doing so unofficially, U Ye Htut said, though they may have difficulty securing official interviews.
Rights groups gave the news a cautious welcome, saying it was still not known how visa criteria would be assessed, or whether journalists would be allowed to criticize 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,” Committee to Protect Journalists’ Southeast Asian representative Shawn Crispin said.
“But we have some journalists here in Bangkok who were allowed [into Myanmar] 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,” he said.
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 Myanmar, Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said. They include regulations that “the state, and economic policies of the state, will not be negatively criticized,” among others.