Attacks on the Press 2001: Burma

Controlled by a harsh military junta and operating under a regime of severe censorship and threat, Burma’s media are barred from reporting even the most mundane local events. Debate about government policies or the dire state of the economy is unheard of, and most political news consists of glowing stories recounting the presumed achievements of the ruling State Peace and Development Council. There is virtually no coverage of opposition leader and Nobel laureate Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD). An ongoing dialogue of sorts between the NLD and the junta is similarly off-limits to the press.

The only recent development that has encouraged some observers is the 1999 opening of the privately owned–but junta-controlled–English-language Myanmar Times. A project encouraged by the Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), headed by military intelligence chief Lt. Gen. Khin Nyunt, the weekly paper is nominally owned by Australian publisher Ross Dunkley and targets foreign investors. It is allowed more latitude in its reporting and presentation than staid mouthpieces such as the official daily New Light of Myanmar.

The Times might indicate a subtle split in the ruling junta, with the OSS and Khin Nyunt seeking to present a more polished, if no less dictatorial, image of Burma. In February, the respected Thailand-based Burmese exile publication, The Irrawaddy, reported that OSS officials have privately cited The Myanmar Times as the best source of information for the intelligence agency’s views.

Some 50 private weekly and monthly journals are allowed to publish in the capital, Rangoon, but they must negotiate a gauntlet of state censors and pay regular, hefty bribes. Journalists from some of these publications told CPJ during a visit that they are prevented from covering floods, natural disasters, or fires. They must frequently scrap entire print runs of their magazines if an article violates official sensibilities. Even coverage of many international events, such as the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, is banned.

Virtually no foreign journalists are allowed to live in Rangoon. (The sole exception is the representative of China’s official Xinhua News Agency.) Local stringers for international wire services say the military closely monitors their activities. Although the junta allowed certain visiting reporters greater access in 2001, foreigners still require special visas and are monitored while in the country.

Communications in general are restricted in Burma. Government permits are needed to own a fax machine, mobile phones are extremely difficult to obtain, and there is no public Internet access. A few thousand e-mail accounts are available, but they are run through a government server and subject to long delays while censors screen messages.

Exile publications that operate along the border with Thailand say they try to distribute their materials inside the country, but since their couriers often risk capture, they can send only a few hundred copies at a time into border areas. Almost no underground press exists because students, the mainstay of such activities in the past, have been brutally repressed by the government.

At the end of 2001, 12 journalists were imprisoned in Burma, many of them for having had contact with the NLD. In July, free-lance journalist San San Nwe was released from prison after serving seven years of a 10-year sentence for allegedly conveying information that showed the regime in a bad light to foreign journalists and diplomats. Journalists in Rangoon told CPJ that San San Nwe suffered from ill health while in detention.

In 2001, the World Association of Newspapers gave her the Golden Pen of Freedom Award. The co-winner of the award, another veteran Burmese journalist, U Win Tin, remains in detention. San San Nwe’s release appeared to be linked to the ongoing dialogue between the junta and Aung San Suu Kyi, which has resulted in the release of some 200 political prisoners and the reopening of several NLD offices. Aung San Suu Kyi, however, remains under house arrest and is prohibited from talking to the press.

Chinese premier Jiang Zemin’s December trip to Burma–the first visit to the country by a Chinese leader since 1988–reinforced ties between the junta and one of its few international allies. Chinese investment has grown in Burma since the junta crushed the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, slaughtering thousands of people in the process. China is one of the few countries in the world that did not break ties with Rangoon over the incident, instead using the country’s isolation to increase Chinese influence. (Another taboo subject for the Burmese press is growing domestic resentment of China’s presence, especially in central Burma.) The government-controlled media, predictably, hailed Jiang’s visit as a major event.

See special report on Burma.