May 30, 2008
Lt. Gen. Thein Sein
Via facsimile: +951-652-624
Prime Minister Thein Sein:
The Committee to Protect Journalists welcomes your government’s recent decision to allow foreign aid and relief workers into Burma. We now urgently call on you to extend this openness to foreign journalists so that they may report on the relief efforts to deal with the disastrous aftermath of Cyclone Nargis.
As you are surely aware, journalists play a crucial role in the emergency response to natural disasters by reporting on previously undiscovered areas of humanitarian need. Their role is essential at this crucial juncture in Burma’s relief operation, since international aid agencies have estimated that as many as 2.5 million people have been left homeless in the wake of the storm.
Foreign donors from 50 different countries unanimously agreed at a May 25 pledge meeting in Rangoon that they would not consider providing further financial assistance to your government for reconstruction and rehabilitation until the relief and rescue mission had reached a satisfactory conclusion. They also required that an independent assessment of the disaster, including in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta area, be completed before they would consider a new appeal for funds.
Their concerns about the lack of transparency surrounding the Cyclone Nargis disaster and your government’s response are directly related to your restrictive media policies. CPJ is troubled by the growing number of reports of official harassment of both foreign and local journalists who have attempted to report independently on the natural disaster.
Your government has overtly censored the local media and harassed and deported the few foreign journalists who have managed to enter the country since the cyclone first hit.
Authorities refused to allow BBC reporter Andrew Harding to enter the country on May 5 when he arrived on a tourist visa at the Rangoon airport. Journalist Andrew Marshall, who reported secretly for a week from the Irrawaddy Delta, described being deported in a May 20 Time magazine article. On May 23, the Burmese embassy in London refused to grant a journalist visa to Svenska Dagbladet reporter Bertil Lintner, who had been invited as a member of a Swedish government delegation to cover the May 25 donor pledge meeting in Rangoon. Successive military governments have blacklisted Lintner, a respected expert on Burmese politics, from entering Burma since 1989.
Meanwhile, scores of other foreign reporters in Bangkok have applied for but not received journalist visas to enter the country. CPJ is also currently investigating a number of other reported press freedom violations related to recent news coverage of the cyclone.
The harassment and imprisonment of journalists have unfortunately long been a matter of policy in your country. CPJ ranked Burma as the second-most censored in the country in the world in a 2006 survey, and our research shows that the media environment has further deteriorated since.
That includes your administration’s crackdown on reporters who tried to cover anti-government demonstrations last September. A soldier killed a Japanese journalist, Kenji Nagai, during the protests. The U.N. reported the Nagai was one of 31 people killed in the violence, but because the media was censored, it’s still unclear how many people actually perished.
That’s regrettably the case again with the cyclone disaster, during which restrictions have been imposed on journalists. By not allowing reporting from the Irrawaddy Delta, your government appears to be trying to cover up the extent of the damage. This has cast widespread doubts on the veracity of official death and missing tolls.
The Cyclone Nargis crisis represents a unique opportunity for your government–for the sake of humanitarianism–to ease its traditional censorship policies and allow the local and foreign media to play their essential roles in dealing with the aftermath of this unfolding national tragedy. In the strongest terms possible, CPJ urges you to reconsider these policies. We look forward to your response.