Although Burma’s authoritarian military rulers proposed a “road map” to democracy in 2004, neither the Burmese people nor its press saw many positive results. On the contrary, conditions for journalists deteriorated, with hard-liners tightening their grip on power inside the government and cracking down further on Burma’s official media and the few remaining independent writers and editors. In October, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt—the author of the road map—was replaced by a senior military figure, Lt. Gen. Soe Win, a move widely interpreted as a major blow to reformers in the ruling junta.
Burma’s strict censorship and absolute control over print and broadcast media inside the country have long stifled its press. The government’s Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) enforces harsh rules governing which subjects are off-limits for journalists, including stories about natural disasters and economic hardship, sources told CPJ.
But after an earthquake and tsunami devastated many coastal areas of South Asia on December 26, drawing the world and international media’s attention, officials took the radical step of inviting foreign journalists to an actual press conference for the first time in 15 years to relay information about local casualties, according to the BBC.
The censors’ daunting regulations for private publications include a restrictive licensing procedure that requires publishers to lease licenses from various governmental departments, according to exiled journalists. Then, if a magazine prints any information deemed too sensitive or offensive by authorities, its license can be easily revoked.
The popular current affairs journal Khit-Sann suffered such a fate in September. One of a small group of private publications run by independent journalists and writers, Khit-Sann was licensed in August 2003. The bimonthly journal featured stories about international current events, as well as adaptations of articles by U.S. political writers such as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and Samuel Huntington. Sources tell CPJ that Khit-Sann was gaining popularity among young writers, intellectuals, and even members of the military establishment, all of whom rarely have access to international commentary on politics and economics.
In August, censors called in Editor Kyaw Win and reprimanded him for having a “pro-American” editorial line, according to exiled Burmese journalists. Weeks later, on September 1, the journal’s license was suspended, and it ceased publishing. Another private journal, Khit-Thit, was reprimanded in June for attempting to run a cover story about the 60th anniversary of D-Day, according to the exiled journalists’ group Burma Media Association (BMA). Censors, who review copies of all publications before they are printed, rejected three different versions of the cover, saying that the photograph of U.S. soldiers landing in France was too threatening, reported BMA.
In the absence of dependable domestic media, many people rely on Burmese-language international radio broadcasts for their news, including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC. The individuals who provide information from inside the country to these broadcasters and other foreign organizations do so at great risk.
In May, on the eve of the National Convention, which Burma’s ruling junta called to frame a new constitution as part of its supposed seven-step plan to democracy, former BBC stringer and lawyer Ne Min was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a closed military tribunal at the notorious Insein Prison in the capital, Rangoon. Military intelligence officers had arrested Ne Min in February for allegedly passing information to “unlawful organizations” outside Burma, such as the BBC and exiled Burmese news organizations, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thailand-based group. He previously served eight years in prison for allegedly “spreading false rumors” in the 1990s.
During the convention itself, Burmese authorities exerted tight control over the press, denying visas to foreign reporters who had applied to cover the event. In addition, the convention was held at a location outside Rangoon that was difficult for local journalists to reach. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and many other ethnic political groups boycotted the convention. Observers say the military authorities made little progress toward introducing real representative democracy in Burma.
In September, veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win and writer Dagon Taya gave interviews to foreign broadcasters calling for reconciliation between opposition parties and the ruling junta. In retaliation, they were blasted in the official media, had their phone lines cut, and came under heavy government surveillance, sources told CPJ.
Several publications licensed through the Department of Military Intelligence were suspended or closed in October, after Prime Minister Khin Nyunt’s dismissal, according to international news reports. Nyunt previously ran the country’s military intelligence service, which the ruling junta dismantled later that month.
One of the suspended publications was the popular sports weekly First Eleven, whose editor, Zaw Thet Htway, was arrested and sentenced to death in 2003 for high treason. On May 12, the Supreme Court converted his death sentence to three years in prison. The government’s reversal came after intense pressure from the United Nations’ International Labor Organization (ILO) and other groups, including CPJ, sources said. The ILO is one of the few international groups with a permanent office in Burma. Zaw Thet Htway’s lawyer Naing Ngwe Ya appealed the three-year sentence in September, and it was reduced again in October, to two years. Then, on January 3, 2005, Zaw Thet Htway was released from prison along with two other imprisoned freelance journalists, Ohn Kyaing and Thein Tan, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in 1990 for “inciting unrest by writing false reports,” according to the AAPP. Hundreds of other prisoners were freed in late 2004, including political prisoners, as part of a general amnesty declared by the ruling junta in November.
Two journalists who remain behind bars, Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun, better known by his pen name, Nyein Thit, were honored with CPJ’s 2004 International Press Freedom Award in November. The two filmmakers were arrested in October 1999 for making independent documentaries that portrayed the harsh realities of everyday life in Burma, including poverty and forced labor. They were both sentenced to eight years in prison. Another documentary filmmaker, Lazing La Htoi, was arrested in August in the northern state of Kachin after filming the aftermath of record flooding there.
Despite intense international pressure for the release of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and increased economic sanctions, the military junta kept Suu Kyi under house arrest during 2004. She has been in detention since last May, when she and a group of her supporters were brutally attacked in northern Burma in an incident known as “Black Friday.”
Supporters were able to read a profile of Suu Kyi in the March edition of Reader’s Digest, which appeared on newsstands intact without any deletions, despite the fact that foreign publications are routinely heavily censored before being allowed into the country. The profile included critical remarks about the ruling junta and sold quickly, according to Agence France-Presse. Observers say that authorities may have allowed the profile to be published unaltered because the magazine’s readership, like that of all English-language publications, is relatively small and therefore is viewed as less of a threat.