Attacks on the Press 1999: Burma

Forcing their citizenry to live behind a wall of repressive ignorance, Burma’s military leaders have shown no signs of liberalizing one of the world’s harshest regimes.

With all media controlled by the state, and access to the Internet, modems, fax machines and other communication devices strictly licensed and controlled, local journalists are reduced to reproducing state press releases and regurgitating government propaganda. The official English-language daily, The New Light of Myanmar, and other media are deployed in clumsy official campaigns against “neocolonial” interference by foreign media, and against the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

The junta has also used local media to rewrite history, by constantly emphasizing the prominent role that the military claims to have played in the development of Burma. Even the regime’s chosen name for the country, Myanmar, which was adopted after the present junta seized power in a bloody crackdown on dissent in 1988, is seen by critics as a crude attempt to impose the military’s views on the nation.

The authoritative Hong Kong-based weekly Far Eastern Economic Review reported in September that the military intelligence apparatus maintains Burma’s largest computer facility, using it for the sole purpose of intercepting telephone, fax, e-mail, and radio communications. Burmese journalists working for foreign news agencies in Burma assume that their telephones are tapped, and work under constant pressure to censor their reports or else face harsh reprisals.

In late September, 27 employees of the state-owned newspaper Kyemon were reportedly interrogated by the military after the paper published a picture of military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt under the doctored headline, “The World’s Biggest Crook.” Two Kyemon journalists were said to have died under interrogation, according to the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition-run shortwave radio station based in Norway. Burmese sources believe the altered layout was likely the work of one or two employees with access to the newspaper’s composing room.

But with foreign journalists generally denied access to the country, and local correspondents tightly controlled, the rumors could not be confirmed. The junta denies that any interrogations or violence took place, while opponents of the regime accept the Democratic Voice of Burma report as true. Like many things in Burma, the truth of this case remains impossible to determine.