Saturday, January 31, 2009


The Irrawaddy News

Intimidation, arrests and draconian prison sentences reached new heights in a media crackdown in Burma last year

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 newspapers, journals and magazines were muzzled, and their reporters faced harassment by thugs employed by the Burmese authorities.

At least 10 journalists in Burma were detained last year. One received a prison sentence of 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 poring over pages of print with magnifying glasses and mirrors, looking for hidden anti-regime messages within the texts.

The measures followed a case in February when a poet, Saw Wai, published a poem in the weekly Love Journal which contained a subtle message mocking regime chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Saw Wai was convicted and sentenced to 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 that the degree of censorship in Burma had increased from previous years.

Routinely, many articles submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division by Burmese publications in 2008 were rejected, he said.

“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 language 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 Division in the hope of getting favorable treatment and speedy approval of each issue.

“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 the Rangoon-based weekly Flower News, was summoned by police and rebuked for a story he and another reporter had written about the murder of a couple in Rangoon. Burmese authorities do not approve of crime reporting.

In another case, a journalist at 7 Day News Journal was reprimanded by the censorship board 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 threats, an average 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 can take home 200,000 to 300,000 kyat ($170—$260) monthly.

“For a journalist in Burma, possessing a mobile phone or a laptop is like a dream,” said one reporter, adding that many journalists’ expenses often exceed their wages.

Publishers are also feeling the pinch. More than 30 local and national journals and magazines were unable to pay their license fees last year and were forced to close down.

2008 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 on a multitude of trumped-up charges. Sources indicated the real reason behind the harsh sentence was a cartoon of Than Shwe, which appeared in one of Nay Phone Latt’s e-mails.

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

Burma’s best-known comedian, Zarganar, who had his own blog, 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 communicating with sources in Burma.

In September 2008, several Web sites 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 so-called “distributed denial-of-service” (DDoS) attacks, which overloads Web sites with an unmanageable volume of traffic. The Irrawaddy site was forced to shut down for a few days during the attacks.

The assistant editor of New Delhi-based Mizzima, Mungpi, said his agency’s Web site was hacked four times in 2008, at least once 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.

The editor of Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN), Khuensai Jaiyen, said that apart from communication, funding was a major headache.

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.

Verification and the inability to travel and report inside Burma also present practical challenges. At the same time, exiled Burmese reporters often work abroad illegally.

Aye Chan Naing, chief editor of the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), said that the lack of cooperation from Burmese authorities remains a major obstacle for media groups.

He said that many Burmese government officials hang up the phone as soon as reporters identify themselves as working for DVB.

Nine DVB reporters inside Burma were arrested in recent years. Six were given long-term jail sentences and 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.

“Reporters in Burma have to be careful about every single word they write and speak.”

“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, not to mention the physical threats.

The New Mon State Party and the Burmese army are camped out at the Thai-Burmese border, and some 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 conflicts 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 staff due to a UN resettlement program that is sending thousands of ethnic refugees to third countries.

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

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

The head of Washington-based Voice of America’s Burmese Service, Than Lwin Htun, said: “There will be no press 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.

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