Thursday, January 15, 2009

Burmese Journalists Look Back at 2008—or was it 1984?


Journalists in Burma faced Orwellian-type scrutiny and were subjected to imprisonment and intimidation throughout 2008 while exiled Burmese media groups were also attacked—via their computers.

2008 should have been a year when Burma’s reporters reached a worldwide audience. The country was constantly in the global spotlight—hundreds of political activists from September 2007’s monk-led demonstrations were imprisoned, the Irrawaddy delta was devastated by a killer cyclone and a junta-sponsored constitutional referendum was pushed through.

Yet except for the state-run mouthpieces, Burma’s private newspapers, journals and magazines were muzzled while their reporters faced summary harassment by thugs employed by the Burmese authorities.

At least ten journalists in Burma were detained last year. Some received prison sentences of up to 19 years.

Fortunately, there were no reports of Burmese journalists killed. Nevertheless, international media watchdog Reporters without Borders included Burma in its overview of persecution of journalists in the same breath as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

2008 was a year in which the officials of Burma’s notorious censorship bureau, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, found themselves pouring over pages of print with magnifying glasses and mirrors, looking for hidden anti-regime messages within the texts.

The measure followed a case in February when a poet, Saw Wai, published a verse in the weekly “Love Journal” which contained a hidden message mocking regime chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe. The poet was sentenced for two years.

Other bureaucrats scanned the Internet, moving to plug the flow of information.

The editor of a weekly journal in Rangoon who asked to remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy said that degree of censorship in Burma had increased from previous years.

He said that many articles submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division were rejected in 2008.

“Reporters in Burma have to be careful about every single word they write and speak,” he said, adding that they could be fired if the authorities didn’t approve of their coverage or found the material too sensitive.

He said editors and publishers in Burma often send expensive gifts to the heads of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board in the hope of getting favorable treatment and speedy approval of their publications.

“Every editor here, at one time or another, has been reprimanded by the censorship board,” he said.

In August, Saw Myint Than, chief reporter for Rangoon-based weekly Flower News was summoned by police and rebuked for a story he and another reporter has written about the murder of a couple in Rangoon. The authorities do not approve of crime being reported.

In another case, a journalist at 7 Day News Journal was reprimanded by authorities after writing a story about the murder of five people in a house near the residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was sternly reminded that Suu Kyi’s name cannot be mentioned in the media—unless of course the article seeks to slander the democracy icon.

In spite of the risks and the threats, the salary for a reporter is only 35,000 to 70,000 kyat (US $30—$60) per month. Editors generally make about 80,000 kyat ($70) and a chief editor will take home 200,000 to 300,000 kyat ($170—$260) monthly.

“For a journalist in Burma, possessing a mobile phone and a laptop is like a dream,” said one reporter, adding that his expenses often exceeded his wages.

More than 30 local and national journals and magazines were unable to pay their license fees for 2008 and were forced to close down.

2008 also saw an intense campaign by the junta to target citizen journalists, bloggers and Internet users.

In November, well-known blogger Nay Phone Latt, 28, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for espousing anti-government rhetoric online.

Giving interviews to exiled media publications and radio stations is also a risky affair.

Burma’s best-known comedian, Zarganar, who has his own blogsite, was sentenced to 59 years imprisonment after helping cyclone survivors in the Irrawaddy delta. Shortly before his arrest he gave interviews to The Irrawaddy and radio stations overseas detailing conditions in the delta.

Meanwhile, exiled media in Thailand and India faced cyber attacks and difficulties in verifying information from inside Burma, while constantly juggling their legal status in their host countries.

Accuracy, verification and the inability to conduct field trips is the foremost practical challenge. Financial difficulties and cyber attacks compound the problem. Several Burmese journalists in Thailand and India have no legal status and are constantly worried about arrest and deportation.

In September 2008, several websites run by Burmese media groups in exile—The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, the Democratic Voice of Burma and Khitpyaing—came under repeated cyber attacks.

Three of the agencies were bombarded by a so-called “distributed denial-of-service,” or DDoS, which overloads Web sites with an unmanageable amount of traffic. The Irrawaddy site was forced to close down for a few days during the attacks.

The assistant editor of New Delhi-based Mizzima, Mungpi, said his website was attacked four times in 2008.

In September, he said, the Mizzima web site was hacked by a group calling itself “Independence Hackers from Burma.”

He said his reporters also missed deadlines and had to drop stories because they could not get confirmation from sources inside Burma due to poor Internet and telephone connections.

He also said that getting sufficient funding is a major problem.

Almost all exiled publications are non-profit and depend heavily on funding, which has to be renewed annually. As funding is scarce, many groups say that they cannot plan ahead.

Information Minister Kyaw Hsan speaks with journalists in Naypyidaw. (Photo: AFP)

Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), said that verification is the biggest challenge for journalists in exile due to a lack of cooperation from Burmese authorities.

He said that many Burmese department staff hang up the phone as soon as he and his reporters identify themselves as working for the DVB.

Nine reporters for the DVB inside Burma were arrested in recent years. Six were given long-term jail sentences while the other three are currently awaiting trial.

Kyaw Zwa Moe, managing editor of The Irrawaddy, said the foremost problem for journalists in Burma is that the military regime forces journalists to impose self-censorship.

“I doubt that this dreadful situation will change as long as the junta rules the country,” he said.

Ethnic media groups in exile face even more obstacles.

Nai Kasauh Mon, chief editor of Independent Mon News Agency (IMNA) said that financial support and capacity-building for his reporters are major challenges.

But there’s a higher risk lurking at the Thai-Burmese border—the New Mon State Party and the Burmese army are camped out in the area and some of the IMNA reporters have regularly been threatened by unknown assailants while covering sensitive issues.

Many ethnic and Burman journalists who live close to armed groups along the border dare not report the ongoing conflict accurately for fear of retribution.

The editor of the Karen Information Centre, Nan Paw Gay, said that on top of the financial difficulties and threats, they are constantly losing human resources due to the UN resettlement program.

However, in spite of the challenges that the media inside and outside Burma face, they continue to tackle the issues and inform the public, playing a key role as watchdogs.

“We will continue doing what we have to do,” said Aye Chan Naing. “The regime can no longer block the flow of information about Burma—the advancement of communications is too sophisticated nowadays.”

The head of Washington DC-based Voice of America’s Burmese Service, Than Lwin Htun, concluded: “There will be no media freedom in the country as long as the rulers view the media as their enemy.

“The media is the eyes and ears of the people,” he said.

Additional reporting by Irrawaddy staff members inside and outside Burma.

List of 10 Imprisoned Burmese Journalists in 2008

Zaw Thet Htwe

Name: Zaw Thet Htwe
Position: Freelance sportswriter, former editor of First Eleven
Sentence: 19 years
Prison: Insein

Zaw Thet Htwe has received the longest sentence given to a journalist by the courts. He was arrested by Burmese authorities after returning from the Irrawaddy delta where he worked to help cyclone survivors with his friend, the well-known Burmese comedian Zarganar, by delivering aid and videotaping the relief effort. Burmese authorities seized a computer and cell phone in a raid at his home in Rangoon.

Name: Thant Zin Aung
Position: Video and photojournalist
Sentence: 18 years
Prison: Insein

Thant Zin Aung is serving the second longest prison term for a journalist. He was arrested at the Rangoon airport for trying to take out footage of the cyclone Nagris disaster to Thailand.

Thet Zin

Name: Thet Zin
Position: editor of Myanmar Nation
Sentence: 7 years
Prison: Insein

Thet Zin, 42, is an editor of the Burmese weekly journal Myanmar Nation. Burmese authorities confiscated his cell phone and video clips of Buddhist monks in a peaceful protest in September 2007. A report by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, was also seized.

Sein Win Maung

Name: Sein Win Maung
Position: Manager of Myanmar Nation
Sentence: 7 years
Prison: Insein

Sein Win Maung, is the manager of Myanmar Nation. He was arrested along with his editor, Thet Zin, when Burmese authorities raided the publication’s office in Rangoon on February 15.

Name: Kyaw Kyaw Thant
Position: Freelance journalist
Sentence: 7 years
Prison: Insein

Kyaw Kyaw Thant, a freelance journalist, was arrested in June along with his journalist friend Ein Khaing Oo while they documented a demonstration by 20 cyclone survivors in front of the UN Development Program’s office in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township.

Ein Khaing Oo

Name: Ein Khaing Oo
Position: Reporter of Ecovision
Sentence: 2 years
Prison: Insein

Ein Khaing Oo, 24, a female journalist for the Rangoon-based weekly Ecovision, was arrested in June 2008 for writing about a protest launched by about 20 cyclone survivors in front of the UN Development Program’s offices in Rangoon’s Tamwe Township. Police say she intended to distribute photographs of the protest to overseas media.

Name: Khin Maung Aye
Position: editor of News Watch
Sentence: 3 months
Prison: Insein

Khin Maung Aye, the editor of the weekly journal News Watch, was arrested on November 5 by Burmese authorities along with one of the publication’s reporters, Htun Htun Thein, for publishing an article about corruption in the judicial system.

Name: Htun Htun Thein
Position: reporter of News Watch
Sentence: 3 months
Prison: Insein

Htun Htun Thein, a reporter on the weekly journal News Watch, was arrested by Burmese authorities on November 5 along with his editor Khin Maung Aye for publishing an article about corruption in the judicial system.

Name: Aung Kyaw San
Position: editor-in-chief of Myanmar Tribune
Sentence: detained
Prison: Insein

Aung Kyaw San is being detained in Insein Prison. No charges have been filed against him. He was arrested on June 15 along with 15 cyclone relief workers when they returned from the Irrawaddy delta after delivering relief supplies in the region.

His Burmese-language weekly journal was shut down by authorities and his family members are not allowed to visit him in prison. In 1990, he was jailed for more than three years for his pro-democracy activities, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).

Name: Aung Thwin (aka) Aung Gyi
Position: Freelance journalist
Sentence: 2 years
Prison: Insein Annex Prison

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