CONDITIONS FOR JOURNALISTS IN BURMA ARE AMONG THE WORST in the world and showed no sign of improvement in 2000. All media outlets are either owned or controlled by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the military junta that has governed the country since 1988. The handful of private journals allowed to publish face strict licensing requirements, and all published material must be submitted to the official Press Scrutiny Board for approval. Most foreign journalists are barred from the country.
In February, the junta allowed the publication of a privately owned newspaper for the first time. The Myanmar Times, a joint venture between a local firm and an Australian businessman, showed no evidence of independence, however, merely presenting government propaganda more professionally than the clumsy official press.
Late in the year, as international censure mounted over the house arrest of Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and leaders of her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt was quoted in government newspapers saying that the international media were “dominated and manipulated by some Western nations” who sought to undermine Burma.
CPJ has documented eight cases of journalists imprisoned for their work in Burma, though the actual number is thought to be much higher. In October 2000, there were reports that Soe Thein, a prominent journalist jailed in 1996, was near death and in dire need of medical treatment. Nine contributors to the monthly NLD exile magazine Mojo, which is banned in Burma, were also said to be in prison at year’s end.
In August, Tin Maung Than, editor and publisher of the influential private journal Thintbawa, was detained and questioned for five days after he circulated photocopies of a speech by a government official that was critical of the junta’s economic policies. In late November, Tin Maung Than took his family to Thailand, where they sought political asylum in the United States.
The only independent news available in Burmese comes via short-wave broadcasts from Radio Free Asia, Voice of America (VOA), the BBC, and the Democratic Voice of Burma, an opposition station based in Norway. It is illegal to tune in these broadcasts. In January, the NLD reported that a 70-year-old man was sentenced to two years in prison after being caught listening to a VOA broadcast in a public coffee shop.
In January, the government banned the Internet publication of anything that was “directly or indirectly detrimental to the current policies and secret security affairs of the government,” according to a report on Burmese state television. The restrictions made little difference to most Burmese, since the ownership of computers, modems, and even fax machines is strictly regulated, and only a handful of people have been granted Internet access.
Censorship can sometimes reach absurd levels. When a Burmese soccer team suffered defeat during the regional Tiger Cup tournament in Thailand, the Bangkok Post reported that the official censorship board told Burmese sportswriters covering the match that the results “must be written in constructive ways.” Faced with this Orwellian directive, most sportswriters decided not to write about the tournament at all.
The Department of Post and Telecommunications issued strict regulations governing Internet use, even though the government already bars the general public from online access. Under existing law, unauthorized use of a computer is punishable with up to 15 years in prison. As of November, fewer than 1000 people in Burma had e-mail accounts, according to The New York Times.
The new regulations forbid all online writing related to politics, as well as “any writings directly or indirectly detrimental to the current policies and secret security affairs of the Government.” The Post and Telecommunications Department also reserved the “right to amend and change regulations on the use of the Internet without prior notice.” The new rules were announced on state television.
Tin Maung Than, Thintbawa
Tin Maung Than, editor and publisher of the monthly magazine Thintbawa (“Your Life”), was detained for five days by military intelligence agents in Rangoon for making photocopies of a speech given by Brigadier Gen. Zaw Tun, a former deputy minister for economic development.
The speech was highly critical of the government’s economic policies, and was eventually picked up by news agencies abroad. The ensuing publicity was a major embarrassment to the ruling junta, which eventually forced Zaw Tun from office.
“They launched an investigation,” Tin Maung Than later told CPJ. “They went looking for anyone who might have copied the speech.”
After five days of continuous questioning, Tin Maung Than admitted to having copied the speech and signed a “confession.” As part of the confession he had to state that he knew he would be prosecuted if intelligence agents later concluded that the speech and its release abroad were part of a “political plot.” The confession made him vulnerable to arrest at any time.
In October, military agents raided the offices of the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD). Tin Maung Than suspected that a paper on democracy that he had written and given to the NLD through intermediaries was among the items seized in the raid.
In late November, believing his arrest was imminent, Tin Maung Than fled Burma for Thailand.
Cheng Poh, a 77-year-old Burmese lawyer, was sentenced to 14 years in prison for allegedly distributing foreign press clippings with anti-government slogans written on the back. The trial took place in a special court inside Rangoon’s notorious Insein Prison, where Cheng Poh was taken after his arrest in July. According to The Associated Press, Cheng Poh was given two consecutive seven-year prison terms under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act and the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, both of which are regularly used to punish Burmese journalists and dissidents.
On September 14, CPJ sent a letter to Senior Gen. Than Shwe calling for Cheng Poh’s immediate and unconditional release. He was unexpectedly freed on October 17, along with five other elderly prisoners, following a visit by United Nations special envoy Razali Ismail.