Authorities restrict Cyclone Nargis news coverage

New York, May 14, 2008–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the actions of Burma’s military government in restricting press access to disaster areas and censoring local news coverage of the massive devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis.

According to CPJ sources, Prime Minister Thein Sein announced at a meeting with businessmen Tuesday that foreigners–including journalists–would not be allowed into the cyclone-hit Irrawaddy Delta region, and that private business employees assigned to the relief effort were barred from using cameras.

Citing a Burmese Foreign Ministry statement, The New York Times reported on May 10 that government authorities had turned back one relief flight because it carried “an unauthorized media group” and disaster assessment experts. “[Burma] is not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment,” the Times quoted the statement as saying.

“We strongly urge the Burmese government to remove all restrictions to news gathering during this crucial time in the humanitarian relief effort,” said Joel Simon, CPJ’s executive director. “Journalists play an essential role in gathering and disseminating disaster information that is invaluable to relief workers assisting those in need.”   

Restrictions on news gathering follow on the military government’s refusal to issue journalist visas to many foreign reporters. A handful of foreign reporters have managed to enter and report from inside the country; others have been barred and at least one reporter, BBC correspondent Andrew Harding, was expelled.

Some local news publications have been allowed access to the worst hit Irrawaddy Delta area, but they have been banned from reporting critically on the government’s response to the cyclone disaster. They have also been forbidden from publishing graphic pictures of those killed by the storm, according to CPJ sources.

In a special report last week, Firewall Fighters, CPJ documented the key role played by exile media and their undercover reporters in getting news and information out of the tightly controlled nation. These outlets have exposed the government’s sluggish response and have provided more realistic casualty figures.

State-run broadcast media continue to show images of senior junta members distributing aid and meeting with displaced villagers. The images cut a sharp contrast with foreign news reports, which have criticized the junta’s slow response to the disaster and its moves to bar foreign aid workers from entering the country to assist with relief work.