Attacks on the Press 2006: Burma


Military-run Burma, also known as Myanmar, remained one of the most repressive places for journalists, trailing only North Korea on CPJ’s 10 Most Censored Countries list. The junta, which calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), exerted Orwellian control over all media, harassing or jailing journalists who strayed from the official line in their reporting or who helped foreign correspondents with critical reporting. Two journalists were imprisoned for attempting to film outside the country’s controversial new capital, Pyinmana, after the generals decided without warning to move the seat of government from Rangoon. The administration held at least seven journalists behind bars, earning Burma the rank of the world’s fifth leading jailer of journalists.

International pressure grew from governments and bodies such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, calling for the release of the nation’s 1,200 political prisoners. Ibrahim Gambari, U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs, visited Burma in May and November seeking an easing of authoritarian control. But the SPDC maintained and in some cases even intensified restrictions on the media, which it censors through the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD).

Reporting on detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy political party, debates about government policies, news that unfavorably reflected upon the junta—all were strictly prohibited. In February, the government stepped up its campaign to counter critical news about its leadership and human rights record by harassing journalists that provided information to foreign and exile-run media in countries such as neighboring India and Thailand. The Military Security Force, a government intelligence agency, acquired new surveillance technology to track people who spoke with international journalists. The junta interrogated businessmen, civil servants, and journalists on suspicion of providing information to foreign media, including live telephone interviews with the immensely popular Burmese-language broadcaster Radio Free Asia.

One victim of the intensified surveillance was Maung Maung Kyaw Win, a senior reporter and editor at the Burmese-language Myanmar Dana economics magazine. Military intelligence officials had threatened him with death in December 2005, accusing him of helping a U.S. journalist meet with a recently released political prisoner. Fearing for his safety, Maung Maung, along with his family, fled Burma for Thailand in early 2006. He was later granted refugee status in Cambodia by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. It was not the first time Maung Maung had gone into exile in connection with his reporting activities. He left for a time in the early 1990s to help translate into Burmese the popular book Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy, which chronicles the crackdown on the popular pro-democracy uprising in 1988.

On March 27, Thaung Sein (also known as Thar Cho), a photojournalist, and Ko Kyaw Thwin (also known as Moe Tun), a columnist at the Burmese-language magazine Dhamah Yate, were arrested for videotaping on the outskirts of Pyinmana. The following day, they were sentenced to three years in prison under the draconian 1996 Television and Video Act, which bars the distribution of video material without official approval. The junta had ordered the military to detain anyone taking pictures near the city, 250 miles (400 kilometers) north of Rangoon, to which the government had abruptly moved in November 2005. An appeals court upheld the guilty verdict against both journalists on June 21, without allowing defense witnesses to testify.

The journalist in detention the longest was U Win Tin, who had served more than 17 years on various antistate charges. The 76-year-old’s health had deteriorated in recent years, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma (AAPPB), an advocacy group based in Thailand. According to Amnesty International, U Win Tin was eligible for early release with time off for good behavior in July 2006, but he was still imprisoned when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1.

Journalists Maung Maung Lay Ngwe, Aung Htun, Thaung Tun, and Ne Min were also in prison on December 1. Maung Maung Lay Ngwe was first imprisoned in 1990 for publishing information that “makes people lose respect for the government.” CPJ is investigating his whereabouts and legal status.

Aung Htun, a writer and activist, was imprisoned in February 1998 for writing and publishing a seven-volume book that documents the history of Burma’s politically active student movement, which crucially led the pro-democracy uprisings of 1988. Sentenced to a total of 17 years, his health had deteriorated in recent years, according to the AAPPB.

Thaung Tun, an editor, filmmaker, and poet, was arrested in 1999 and subsequently sentenced to eight years in prison for his role in producing unauthorized films that exposed government mismanagement and human rights abuses. He was a member of the opposition NLD party and spent three years in prison for his political activities in the late 1970s. He is currently detained at Moulmein Prison in southern Burma, far from his family in Mandalay, according to the AAPPB.

Ne Min, a lawyer and former stringer for the BBC, was sentenced to 15 years in prison on May 7, 2004, on charges that he had illegally passed information to “antigovernment” organizations based outside the country.

Censorship and harassment of the local media were pervasive in 2006. The 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act requires that all editorial and advertising material be approved by the PSRD, a time-consuming process that requires most Burmese periodicals to publish as weeklies or monthlies. The PSRD has often required publications to carry articles drafted by the government, especially government propaganda recycled from New Light of Myanmar, the official daily newspaper.

On January 3, the junta ordered the sacking of popular Yangon Times columnist Major Wunna, who wrote under the pseudonym Mar J, after the periodical published two articles by him that government censors had rejected. The satirical pieces lampooned the government’s relocation to Pyinmana and the ongoing National Convention to draft a new constitution.

The immensely popular Weekly Eleven Journal was forced by the censorship board to remove the names of four of the 15 people it had identified for its year-end edition as the country’s leading personalities, including writer Ludu Daw Amar, journalist Ludu Sein Win, businessman U Tay Za, and artist Maung Than Sein.

In February, the PSRD issued a directive prohibiting all media from reporting on the reaction of Burma’s minority Muslim community to the controversial Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. At least one publication had two articles it had drafted on the subject banned by censors, and no Burmese media covered the cartoon story, according to CPJ sources.

The PSRD in June ordered all local journals and magazines to stop publishing articles by Ludu Sein Win, who had been jailed by a previous military government. The order came soon after the 65-year-old journalist, who relies on an oxygen mask to breathe, wrote an op-ed piece for the International Herald Tribune that criticized the SPDC’s policy toward the political opposition and called on the international community to pressure the junta. In another case of overt censorship, the monthly magazine New Spectator, which launched in May, was forced to cancel its July edition after government censors banned four of its top stories.

Despite this, the Ministry of Information claimed to be implementing a more open policy toward the local media. Information Minister Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan and top-ranking censor Maj. Tint Swe repeatedly vowed to adopt more flexible censorship policies and allow local publications more editorial independence. Favored publications were allowed to report for the first time on natural disasters, poverty, and certain public health issues, including the country’s growing HIV/AIDS problem.

Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan led press conferences that, for the first time, allowed open question-and-answer sessions and, in May, participated in a government-run journalist training course. Not surprisingly, his lectures stressed journalism that serves “the interest of the state and the people,” according to news reports.

The SPDC upgraded its Internet filtering and surveillance technologies, which it has procured from U.S. technology company Fortinet since 2004, according to information compiled by the OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative of several universities that focuses on Internet censorship issues.

The government has a monopoly on all 40 or so domestic Internet service providers, and it has attempted to force local e-mail users onto the government-run Mail4U service by periodically blocking access to internationally hosted services Yahoo and MSN Hotmail.

Government censors also sought to block Google’s Gmail and online voice service GTalk. Users complained in mid-June that when they attempted to log on they received an “access denied” message and that service was only sporadically available in the months that followed.

Exiled journalists and press freedom advocates in Thailand and India told CPJ that the blockage was most likely part of the Ministry of Information’s August 2005 “media to fight media” policy, a crude effort to block the flow of information critical of the government to foreign media organizations and exiled opposition groups.