Attacks on the Press 2003: Burma

Burma’s ruling military junta launched a major crackdown on pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) party on May 30, when a mob of government-backed thugs ambushed her convoy while she was driving through the remote northern town of Ye-u. Since her release from house arrest in May 2002, Suu Kyi had been visiting thousands of her supporters, angering authorities.

On “Black Friday,” as her supporters refer to May 30, Suu Kyi was physically attacked, detained, and placed in “protective custody” along with as many as 17 of her supporters. Radio Free Asia reported that about 100 people were killed during the ambush. The next day, universities were closed, and NLD offices were sealed. International news agencies reported the incident as a premeditated attack on Suu Kyi, but inside Burma, the heavily censored press gave readers a very different story.

Both the state media and private weekly newspapers carried extensive coverage of the military government’s version of events, reflecting the junta’s total control of the Burmese press. Articles accused Suu Kyi and the NLD of plotting an armed uprising and committing “acts counter to democracy” and claimed that the military government was detaining Suu Kyi for her own safety.

Radio Free Asia reported that at the time of the incident, villagers were threatened with harsh penalties for listening to foreign radio news services, but they were still the major source of information for many Burmese in 2003. In addition to four state-controlled daily newspapers, which are published by the Information Ministry, as many as 50 private weekly newspapers and monthly magazines are in circulation. Private publications have to operate within strict boundaries set by the government. They must apply annually for printing licenses and carry pro-government stories, according to exiled Burmese journalists.

On July 17, military intelligence agents raided the offices of the well-regarded sports magazine First Eleven and arrested five staff members, including editor and former dissident Zaw Thet Htway. Exiled Burmese groups claim that Htway was beaten during his arrest. The four other First Eleven journalists were soon released, but Htway remained in jail, with the government claiming to have uncovered another plot to overthrow it.

In June, First Eleven had received a government warning after it published an article that month questioning how grant money from the international community for the development of soccer in the country had been spent, according to The Irrawaddy, a Bangkok-based news magazine run by exiled Burmese journalists. Exiled journalists also told CPJ that unauthorized office equipment was confiscated during the raid, including fax machines, a computer with Internet access, and a satellite dish.

In a statement released soon after the arrests, the government denied that Htway was arrested because of his work as a journalist and said he was detained “on a totally different subject.” The government provided no further details, according to The Associated Press.

At a special court session in Burma’s notorious Insein Prison on November 28, Htway was convicted of high treason and sentenced to death along with eight other individuals. Htway was accused of plotting to assassinate government officials and of attempting to create instability. Though it is unlikely that his sentence will be carried out, it was interpreted as a warning to Burmese journalists not to test the boundaries of press freedom.

According to CPJ research, at least nine other journalists remain behind bars in Burma, including U Win Tin, one of the country’s most well-respected journalists and a close associate of Suu Kyi’s. Now 73 years old, U Win Tin was arrested in 1989, and his health continues to deteriorate under harsh prison conditions, according to a recently released political prisoner. The veteran reporter was allowed medical treatment for a hernia problem in 2003, according to the BBC. Another imprisoned journalist, Tha Ban, was also permitted to have an eye operation in November. The United Nations estimates that as many as 1,300 political prisoners are jailed in Burma.

Fax machines must be licensed in Burma, and Internet use is strictly regulated. Although two public Internet cafés opened in July in the capital, Rangoon, users are required to register their names, and only 10,000 of the Internet’s millions of Web sites are accessible, according to The Irrawaddy.

In September, Suu Kyi was finally allowed to return home, under house arrest again, after undergoing major gynecological surgery at a Rangoon hospital. In his inaugural speech to the nation on August 30, newly appointed Prime Minister Gen. Khin Nyut announced Burma’s “road map to democracy” and pledged to hold elections at an unspecified future date. The speech was broadcast on Burmese state television and radio, but no reporters were allowed to cover the event. According to the BBC, the ruling junta was holding secret talks with Suu Kyi at year’s end in the hopes of moving the political dialogue forward and legitimizing the government’s plans.