International pressure goaded Burma’s ruling military junta into releasing several journalists and hundreds of political prisoners in 2005. But five journalists were among the more than 1,300 remaining detainees, and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Aung San Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.
On January 3, the junta released journalists Thein Tan and Ohn Kyaing, who had both served long terms in atrocious prison conditions, and editor Zaw Thet Htway, who had been sentenced to death. Thein Tan, a freelance writer with ties to the opposition National League for Democracy, served more than 14 years. Ohn Kyaing served more than 15 years on charges of “writing and distributing seditious pamphlets” and “threatening state security.” Zaw Thet Htway, editor of the popular sports magazine First Eleven, had been jailed since 2003 for “high treason.”
On July 6, the junta released freelance journalist Sein Hla Oo and documentary filmmaker Aung Pwint. Sein Hla Oo was jailed in 1994 for “fabricating and sending antigovernment reports” to foreign embassies and news outlets. Aung Pwint and his partner Nyein Thit were arrested in October 1999 for making documentary films about poverty in Burma. CPJ honored the two with International Press Freedom Awards in November 2004. Aung Pwint returned home to Rangoon, but Nyein Thit was still in jail when CPJ conducted its worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.
Also still imprisoned was prominent 75-year-old journalist U Win Tin, who was arrested and sentenced in 1989 on the bizarre charge of arranging a forced abortion for a member of the opposition party. U Win Tin helped to establish many pro-democracy publications in the run-up to the 1988 street uprisings. The senior journalist’s health has sharply deteriorated in recent years.
Burma is one of Asia’s most repressive countries for media. The government controls all print, radio, and television outlets, and a draconian 1996 decree prohibits all speeches or statements that might “undermine national stability.” The State Development and Peace Council (SPDC) has since tightened those restrictions.
The army-led junta strengthened its grip with an October 2004 purge of the once-powerful military intelligence apparatus MIS. Apart from jailing hundreds of former MIS operatives, news publications affiliated with MIS were closed, harassed, or brought under SPDC control.
In April, the SPDC established the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) under the Ministry of Information, which took over censorship duties from the MIS-run Press Scrutiny Board. All publications were required to reregister with the new PSRD, a process that entailed providing detailed information about publications’ ownership, finances, and staff journalists.
Maj. Tint Swe, the PSRD’s top-ranking censor, promised in July to allow news outlets greater editorial independence. The Ministry of Information, meanwhile, instituted a new press conference format, including unprecedented question-and-answer sessions with Minister of Information Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan, Minister of Home Affairs Maj. Gen. Maung Oo, and Director General of the Military Police Force Brig. Gen. Khin Yi. Still, journalists were expected to report government statements without critical analysis.
At the same time, the PSRD tightened existing censorship guidelines and expanded its control over the press. In July, Tint Swe announced a ban on publishing op-ed pieces and forbade any critical reporting on regional allies China, India, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). He also announced that natural disasters could be reported only if the news did not affect “national dignity” and that critical reports about government policies would be judged on a journalist’s “reasons and aims.”
The PSRD routinely censored news and advertisements, particularly items that might affect the hard-line regime’s public image. Most periodicals publish as weeklies because of the amount of time required to obtain censors’ approval. The SPDC famously blacked out all news about the December 2004 tsunami’s impact on Burma. Publications are still barred from reporting on HIV-AIDS in Burma, which international health experts say has reached epidemic proportions.
On May 7, 2005, the PSRD censored reporting on a coordinated bomb attack on two shopping malls and a trade center in the capital, Rangoon. Two hours after the blast, the Ministry of Information issued a press release claiming that 11 people had been killed. Hospital workers were ordered not to speak with reporters. Independent sources put the death toll above 11, with some reports in the Thai press estimating casualties at more than 40. The sources said that the sophistication of the attacks pointed to the possible involvement of former MIS officials.
Less sensitive news also fell victim to the censors. Two monthly publications, Nwe Ni and Myanma Dana, were banned from publishing in February because they had failed to submit their cover pages for PSRD approval. Another privately owned magazine, Han Thit, was banned for two months after running an advertisement for a Valentine’s Day celebration—on the reasoning it promoted “negative” Western influences.
The Voice, a Rangoon-based weekly, was barred from distributing in May as punishment for a front-page story it ran in late March about Vietnam’s withdrawal from Burma’s New Year water festival celebrations, a story that the PSRD contended used “falsified sources and was written with a negative sense.” The Voice was also banned from distributing in February after the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism questioned the accuracy of a report it published on the construction of a hotel in remote Chin state.
Through August, the SPDC granted licenses for the establishment of 32 new publications, on the condition that editors notify authorities about the identity, past history, and political views of its staff members. New publications were also required to publish government statements, announcements, and articles when requested, according to the SPDC’s new guidelines. When the Myanmar Times attempted to report on the new requirements, the paper’s August 16 Burmese-language edition was banned from distribution.
The junta also attempted to rein in the Internet by taking control of Bagan Cybertech, Burma’s main Internet service and satellite-feed provider. Ye Naing Win, the son of former MIS chief Khin Nyunt and the communication company’s chief executive, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for unspecified “economic crimes.” The junta has since deactivated many e-mail accounts run by Bagan, and blocked access to exile-run Web-based news sites, including Irrawaddy and Mizzima News.
Another exile-run news group, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), based in Oslo, Norway, began transmission in May of a television news program dedicated to Burmese issues, including political reports that typically would be censored inside Burma. Many Burmese were able to receive the programming through satellite dishes. By July, however, the SPDC had banned new satellite dish licenses and ordered local authorities to inform the public that viewing the DVB-produced program was illegal and punishable by seven years in prison.