Reports   |   Burma

Imprisoned journalists in Burma

At a protest in Bangkok, images of the jailed journalist Hla Hla Win. (AP/Sakchai Lalit)

Published September 20, 2011

Burma has a long record of jailing independent journalists, ranking among the world’s five worst jailers of the press for four consecutive years, CPJ research shows. Journalists are typically charged with violating the country’s censorship laws, among the strictest in the world, or engaging in “antistate” activities such as disseminating information to the outside world. 

More in this report
Transition neglects press freedom
EU conflicted on sanctions
Strains for exile media
Multimedia
Video: Undercover heroes
In print
Download the pdf

CPJ research shows that at least 14 journalists and media support workers were imprisoned as of September 1, 2011, although the actual number may be higher. CPJ’s prison surveys, conducted worldwide on December 1 of each year and in specific countries in response to events, include only those cases in which the identities of the imprisoned journalists can be confirmed. The Democratic Voice of Burma, or DVB, an exile-run news organization, says that in addition to the five identified DVB journalists in prison, another 12 unidentified DVB journalists are being held as well. DVB does not identify them for fear they will be subjected to further reprisal should their affiliations become known.

Here are the journalists whose cases CPJ has confirmed:

Ne Min (Win Shwe), freelance
Imprisoned: February 2004

Ne Min, a lawyer and a former stringer for the BBC, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on May 7, 2004. He was charged with illegally passing information to “antigovernment” organizations operating in border areas, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a prisoner aid group based in Thailand.

It was the second time that Burma’s military government had imprisoned the well-known journalist, also known as Win Shwe, on charges related to disseminating information to news sources outside Burma. In 1989, a military tribunal sentenced Ne Min to 14 years of hard labor for “spreading false news and rumors to the BBC to fan further disturbances in the country” and “possession of documents including antigovernment literature, which he planned to send to the BBC,” according to official radio reports. He served nine years at Rangoon’s Insein Prison before being released in 1998.

Exiled Burmese journalists told CPJ that Ne Min had provided news to political groups and exile-run news publications before his second arrest in February 2004.

Win Maw, Democratic Voice of Burma
Imprisoned: November 27, 2007

Win Maw, an undercover reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an Oslo-based Burmese exile news organization, was arrested with two friends by military intelligence agents in a Rangoon tea shop soon after visiting an Internet café. He is serving a 17-year jail sentence on charges related to his news reporting.

Authorities accused him of acting as the “mastermind” of DVB’s in-country news coverage of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a series of Buddhist monk-led protests against the government that were put down by lethal military force, according to DVB.

The frontman for the well-known pop band Shwe Thanzin (Golden Melody), Win Maw started reporting for DVB in 2003, a year after he was released from a seven-year prison sentence for composing pro-democracy songs, according to DVB. His video reports often focused on the activities of opposition groups, including the 88 Generation Students group.

After being arrested in November 2007, Win Maw was sentenced in closed-court proceedings in 2008 to seven years in prison for violations of the Immigration Act and sending “false” information to an exile-run media group. In 2009, he was sentenced to an additional 10 years for violations of the Electronics Act, according to the exile-run news website The Irrawaddy.

Win Maw was being held at the remote Thandwe Prison in Arakan state, nearly 600 miles from his Rangoon-based family. Family members said police had tortured him during interrogations and denied him adequate medical attention.

Win Maw received the 2010 Kenji Nagai Memorial Award, an honor bestowed on Burmese journalists in memory of the Japanese photojournalist shot and killed by Burmese troops while covering the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The award was created by APF, a Japanese video news agency, and the Burma Media Association, an exile-run press freedom group.

Nay Phone Latt (Nay Myo Kyaw), freelance
Imprisoned: January 29, 2008

Nay Phone Latt, also known as Nay Myo Kyaw, wrote a blog and owned three Internet cafés in Rangoon. He was arrested under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act on national security-related charges, according to news reports. His blog posts provided breaking news updates on the military’s crackdown on the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and the reports were cited by a number of international news outlets, including the BBC. He also served as a youth member of the opposition National League for Democracy party, according to Reuters.

In July 2008, a court formally charged Nay Phone Latt with causing public offense and violating video and electronic laws when he posted caricatures of ruling generals on his blog, Reuters reported.

During closed judicial proceedings at Insein Prison on November 10, 2008, Nay Phone Latt was sentenced to 20 years and six months in prison, according to the Burma Media Association, a press freedom advocacy group, and news reports. He was transferred from Insein to Pa-an Prison in Karen state in late 2008, news reports said. The Rangoon Divisional Court later reduced the prison sentence to 12 years after Nay Phone Latt’s two-month appeal.

In 2010, he was honored with the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award for his creative and courageous blog postings. At the New York ceremony honoring him, chairman and editor Tina Brown read a statement that Nay Phone Latt managed to dispatch from prison: “This award is dedicated to all writing hands which are tightly restricted by the unfairness and are strongly eager for the freedom to write, all over the world.”

Sein Win Maung, Myanmar Nation
Imprisoned: February 15, 2008

Sein Win Maung, office manager of Myanmar Nation, a weekly journal based in Rangoon, was serving a seven-year sentence on charges that he violated the Printer’s and Publisher’s Act, which requires that all publications be checked by state censors before publication, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

Sein Win Maung was arrested in conjunction with a police raid on the offices of Myanmar Nation, during which agents seized cell phones, footage of the monk-led anti-government demonstrations of September 2007, and a report by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, U.N. special rapporteur for human rights in Burma, according to Aung Din, director of the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. Campaign for Burma. The rapporteur’s report detailed killings associated with the military government’s crackdown on the demonstrators. Authorities also confiscated handwritten poems from Sein Win Maung’s desk.

Also arrested in conjunction with the raid was Thet Zin, the journal’s editor, who was freed in 2009 as part of a government amnesty program.

The New Delhi-based Mizzima news agency cited family members as saying the two were first detained in the Thingangyun Township police station before being charged with illegal printing and publishing on February 25. On November 28, 2008, during a closed-court hearing at the Insein Prison compound, they were each sentenced to seven years in prison.

Police ordered Myanmar Nation’s staff to stop publishing temporarily, according to the Burma Media Association, a press freedom advocacy group with representatives in Bangkok. The exile-run news website The Irrawaddy said the newspaper was allowed to resume publishing in March 2008; by October of that year, exile-run groups said, the journal had shut down for lack of leadership.

Sein Win Maung was being held in Kengtung Prison in Shan state, about 400 miles from his family in Rangoon.

Maung Thura (Zarganar), freelance
Imprisoned: June 4, 2008

Police arrested Maung Thura, a well-known blogger and comedian who used the professional name Zarganar, or “Tweezers,” at his home in Rangoon, according to news reports. The police also seized electronic equipment at the time of his arrest, according to Agence France-Presse.

Maung Thura mobilized entertainers and more than 400 volunteers to help survivors of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Rangoon and much of the Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. His footage of relief work in hard-hit areas was circulated on DVD and on the Internet. Photographs and DVD footage of the disaster’s aftermath were among the items police confiscated at the time of his arrest, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma and the U.S. Campaign for Burma.

In the week he was detained, Maung Thura gave several interviews to overseas-based news outlets, including the BBC, criticizing the military junta’s response to the disaster. The day after his arrest, state-controlled media published warnings against sending video footage of relief work to foreign news agencies.

During closed proceedings in August 2008 at Insein Prison in Rangoon, the comedian was indicted on at least seven charges, according to international news reports.

On November 21, 2008, the court sentenced Maung Thura to 45 years in prison on three separate counts of violating the Electronics Act, which allows for harsh prison sentences for anyone who uses electronic media, including the Internet, to send information outside the country without government approval. Six days later, the court added 14 years to his term after convicting him on charges of communicating with exiled dissidents and causing public alarm in interviews with foreign media, his defense lawyer, Khin Htay Kywe, told The Associated Press. On appeal, the Rangoon Divisional Court later reduced the sentences to a total of 35 years.

Maung Thura had been detained on several occasions in the past, including a September 2007 episode in which he was accused of helping Buddhist monks during the Saffron Revolution protests, according to the exile-run press freedom group Burma Media Association. He had maintained a blog, Zarganar-windoor, detailing his work.

The Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma reported that Maung Thura was transferred in December 2008 to the remote Myintkyina Prison in Kachin state, where he was reported to be in poor health. His sister-in-law, Ma Nyein, told the exile news website The Irrawaddy that the journalist suffered from hypertension and jaundice.

A total ban on family visits has been in effect since May 2010. The denial of family visits can have a devastating impact on the health and well-being of prisoners as they rely on family members for food and medicine and other essential supplies that are not adequately provided for them in the prison system, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

In 2009, Maung Thura was awarded the Pen/Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage at a ceremony in London. The 2010 documentary film, “The Prison Where I Live,” detailed his ordeal.

Zaw Thet Htwe, freelance
Imprisoned: June 13, 2008

Police arrested Rangoon-based freelance journalist Zaw Thet Htwe in the town of Minbu, where he was visiting his mother, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported. The sportswriter had been working with comedian-blogger Maung Thura in delivering aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis and videotaping the relief effort.

The journalist, who formerly edited the popular sports newspaper First Eleven, was indicted in a closed tribunal on August 7, 2008, and tried along with Maung Thura and two activists, AFP reported. The group faced multiple charges, including violating the Video Act and Electronics Act and disrupting public order and unlawful association, news reports said. The Electronics Act allows for harsh prison sentences for anyone who uses electronic media to send information outside the country without government approval.

The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma said police officials confiscated a computer and cell phone during a raid on Zaw Thet Htwe’s Rangoon home.

In November 2008, Zaw Thet Htwe was sentenced to a total of 19 years in prison, according to the exile-run Mizzima news agency. The Rangoon Divisional Court later reduced the term to 11 years, Mizzima reported. The journalist was serving his sentence in Taunggyi Prison in Shan state, nearly 400 miles from his home and family, including his 4-year-old daughter.

Zaw Thet Htwe had been arrested before, in 2003, and given the death sentence for plotting to overthrow the government, news reports said. The sentence was later commuted to three years in prison, according to exile-run news website The Irrawaddy. AFP reported that the 2003 arrest was related to a story about a misappropriated sports grant.

Thant Zin Aung, freelance
Imprisoned: June 13, 2008

Thant Zin Aung, an independent video journalist from Rangoon, was arrested as he was about to board a flight to Thailand with a video showing the destruction caused by Cyclone Nargis, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma. He was tried alongside journalists Maung Thura and Zaw Thet Htwe.

The trial, conducted inside Insein Prison, led to prison sentences in November 2008 that totaled 18 years. Thant Zin Aung’s sentence was later reduced to 10 years. In 2011, he was being held in Pa-an Prison, in the eastern state of Karen.

Thant Zin Aung was sentenced under the Television and Video Law, which prohibits copying or distributing video that is not approved by government censors, and the Electronics Transactions Law, which sets broad prohibitions against using technology for perceived “antistate” reasons.

Zaw Tun (Win Oo), The News Watch
Imprisoned: June 18, 2009

Zaw Tun, a freelance journalist and former chief reporter for the magazine The News Watch, was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment after being arrested in June 2009, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma. At Bahan Township Court, he was charged with obstructing a public servant

A security officer found Zaw Tun near the home of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was then under house arrest. The officer arrested the journalist for purportedly responding impolitely to questions. In 2011, Zaw Tun was being held in Insein Prison.        

Ngwe Soe Lin (Tun Kyaw), Democratic Voice of Burma
Imprisoned: June 26, 2009

Ngwe Soe Lin, an undercover video journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was arrested after leaving an Internet café in Rangoon, according to DVB. Before the journalist’s conviction, DVB had publicly referred to him only as “T.”

Ngwe Soe Lin was one of two cameramen who took video footage of children orphaned by the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster for a documentary titled, “Orphans of the Burmese Cyclone.” The film was recognized with a Rory Peck Award for best documentary in November 2009. DVB said that another video journalist, identified only as “Zoro,” went into hiding after Ngwe Soe Lin’s arrest.

On January 27, 2010, a special military court attached to Rangoon’s Insein Prison sentenced Ngwe Soe Lin, also known as Tun Kyaw, to 13 years in prison on charges related to the vague and draconian Electronics and Immigration acts, according to a DVB statement. The Electronics Act allows for harsh prison sentences for anyone who uses electronic media to send information outside the country without government approval.

Ngwe Soe Lin was charged with sending illegal video footage to DVB and illegally entering Thailand to attend a training session with DVB, according to the Hong Kong-based Asian Human Rights Commission. In 2011, Ngwe Soe Lin was being held in Lashio Prison.

Hla Hla Win, Democratic Voice of Burma
Myint Naing, freelance
Imprisoned: September 11, 2009

Hla Hla Win, an undercover reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was arrested on her way back from a reporting assignment in Pakokku Township, Magwe Division, where she had conducted interviews with Buddhist monks in a local monastery. Her assistant, Myint Naing, was also arrested, according to the independent Asian Human Rights Commission.

Hla Hla Win was working on a story for the second anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in which Buddhist monk-led protests were put down by lethal military force, according to her DVB editors.

In October 2009, a Pakokku Township court sentenced Hla Hla Win and Myint Naing to seven years in prison each on charges of using an illegally imported motorcycle.

After being interrogated in prison, Hla Hla Win was also charged with violating the Electronics Act and sentenced to an additional 20 years on December 30, 2009. Myint Naing was sentenced to an additional 25 years under the Electronics Act, the Asian Human Rights Commission said. The act allows for harsh prison sentences for anyone who uses electronic media to send information outside the country without government approval.

Hla Hla Win first joined DVB as an undercover reporter in December 2008. According to her editors, she played an active role in covering issues considered sensitive to the government, including the local reaction to the controversial 2009 trial of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma said that Hla Hla Win was not provided legal representation during the trial. The court refused to hear her appeal in April 2010, and her family members publicly disowned her because of her activities, the association said. She has been transferred to Katha Prison, where she continues to serve a 27-year term.

In 2010, Hla Hla Win received the Kenji Nagai Memorial Award, an honor bestowed on Burmese journalists in memory of the Japanese photojournalist shot and killed by Burmese troops while covering the 2007 Saffron Revolution. The award was created by APF, a Japanese video news agency, and the Burma Media Association, an exile-run press freedom group.

Nyi Nyi Tun, Kandarawaddy
Imprisoned: October 14, 2009

A court attached to Rangoon’s Insein Prison sentenced Nyi Nyi Tun, editor of the Kandarawaddy, a news journal based in Karenni state, to 13 years in prison in October 2010, a year after his initial detention.

The court found Nyi Nyi Tun guilty of several antistate crimes, including violations of the Unlawful Associations, Immigration, and Wireless acts, according to Mizzima, a Burmese exile-run news agency, and the Asian Human Rights Commission.

Nyi Nyi Tun was first detained on terrorism charges in October 2009, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), a Thailand-based advocacy organization. Authorities originally tried to connect him to a series of bomb blasts in Rangoon, but apparently dropped the allegations.

Nyi Nyi Tun told his family members that he had been tortured during his interrogation, Mizzima reported. The reported torture lasted for six days and included sodomy and repeated kicks to the head and face, according to the AAPPB. Nyi Nyi Tun now suffers from partial paralysis.

After his arrest in 2009, Burmese authorities shut down Kandarawaddy, a local-language journal that operated out of the Kayah special region near the country’s eastern border, according to the Burma Media Association, a press freedom advocacy group.

Sithu Zeya, Democratic Voice of Burma
Imprisoned: April 15, 2010

Sithu Zeya, a video journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was arrested while covering a grenade attack that left 10 dead and hundreds injured during the annual Buddhist New Year water festival in Rangoon, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission. On December 21, 2010, he was sentenced to eight years in prison on charges of illegally crossing the border and having ties to an unlawful organization.

DVB editors said Sithu Zeya was near the crowded area where the blast occurred and started filming the aftermath as authorities began to arrive on the scene. Police officials seized his laptop computer and arrested him immediately.

A police official, Khin Yi, said at a May 6, 2010, press conference that Sithu Zeya had been arrested for taking video footage of the attack. His mother, Yee Yee Tint, told DVB after a prison visit in May that the journalist had been denied food and that the beatings he suffered during police interrogations left him with a constant ringing in his ear. DVB Deputy Editor Khin Maung Win told CPJ that Sithu Zeya had been forced to reveal under torture that his father, Maung Maung Zeya, who was arrested two days after Sithu Zeya, also served as an undercover DVB reporter.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma reported that Sithu Zeya was placed in an isolation cell in January 2011 for failing to comply with prison regulations. He was taken out of the isolation cell every 15 minutes and forced to repeatedly squat and crawl as punishment.          

Maung Maung Zeya, Democratic Voice of Burma
Imprisoned: April 17, 2010

Maung Maung Zeya, an undercover reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), was taken into custody two days after his son and fellow DVB journalist, Sithu Zeya, was arrested for filming the aftermath of a fatal bomb attack during a Buddhist New Year celebration, according to DVB.

Maung Maung Zeya, also known as Thargyi Zeya, was sentenced in February 2011 to 13 years under the Unlawful Association Act, Electronics Transactions Law, and Immigration Act. He was being held in 2011 in remote Hsipaw Prison, away from his son in Insein Prison and his Rangoon-based family, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma.

Maung Maung Zeya was first detained and interrogated at the Bahan Township police station in Rangoon and transferred on June 14, 2010, to Insein Prison. A legal adviser for the two men said Maung Maung Zeya was drugged during the interrogation, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission.

DVB editors said Maung Maung Zeya was a senior member of their undercover team inside Burma and was responsible for operational management, including assigning stories to other DVB journalists. DVB Deputy Editor Khin Maung Win told CPJ that authorities had offered to free Maung Maung Zeya if he divulged the names of other undercover DVB reporters.

(Reported by Anna Bahney and Shawn W. Crispin)

Like this article? Support our work