July 22, 2008
Office of the Secretary-General
Jakarta, Indonesia 12110
Via facsimile: + 62 21 739 8234
Dear Secretary-General Pitsuwan:
We are writing to express our concern that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has neglected to include recommendations for more press freedom and media access as one of the guiding principles for relief and recovery efforts following natural disasters.
The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on you to use your position as the head of Southeast Asia’s most prominent regional organization to impress upon Burma’s military leaders the importance of allowing the press to function without harassment or intimidation during the next crucial phases of the multilateral relief effort.
The release on Monday of the 187-page disaster assessment compiled jointly by ASEAN, the United Nations, and the Burmese government provided a comprehensive and poignant account of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in Burma. The report identified a number of guiding principles for future relief and recovery efforts, including monitoring delivery, quality, and impact of aid and involvement of local communities in the process. But no mention was made of the important role that unfettered media coverage plays in the aftermath of such disasters.
We call on you to use all your influence to prevail upon the Burmese government to allow unhindered access to journalists, who can then report on the progress of recovery efforts, and to release four Burmese reporters who have been imprisoned in recent weeks for reporting on what is perhaps the greatest natural disaster to ever hit their country.
The Burmese government’s previous appeal to foreign donors for about US$11 billion during an emergency conference on May 25 in Rangoon was declined largely due to donor concerns about the Burmese government’s lack of openness to foreign assistance and aid in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, which your recent joint report estimated adversely affected as many as 2.4 million people.
While the Burmese government has changed direction and allowed international aid officials to enter the country, it has continued to restrict and censor press coverage of the natural disaster. Those restrictions include local journalists’ access to an ASEAN press conference held in Rangoon on June 24. We recognize your previous appeal to the Burmese authorities to allow more press coverage of the disaster and relief efforts, which you alluded to in your June 30 column in the Irrawaddy newsmagazine.
As you noted in the column, by not allowing news to reach the outside world, “that is bad for Burma and unhelpful for ASEAN.” Regrettably little has changed since you wrote those words. According to CPJ research, Burmese authorities have deported at least four foreign journalists who managed to enter the country to report on cyclone-related news, including Times of London photographer Ben Gurr and South Korean freelance journalist Lee Yu Kyong.
While harassing the few foreign reporters who have been able to report from the site of the disaster, officials have also refused to process journalist visas for the many reporters who have applied at outside embassies. More worrying has been the Burmese government’s harsh treatment of local journalists, which has included strict censorship of cyclone-related news or images that cast a critical light on the government’s initial response to the crisis.
Those detained include Aung Kyaw San, editor-in-chief of the Myanmar Tribune; Ma Eine Khine Oo, a journalist with Ecovision Journal; popular commentator, comedian, and blogger Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar; and Zaw Thet Htwe, a freelance journalist based in Rangoon. CPJ is now investigating unconfirmed reports that another local reporter was arrested and detained at the time of Khine Oo’s arrest.
A free press is especially crucial in Burma’s political context, where official corruption is known to be endemic and donor concerns about the government’s lack of transparency has contributed to their failure to meet fully the United Nation’s previous appeal for $482 million for immediate assistance in the direct aftermath of the disaster. CPJ believes donor confidence would be significantly enhanced with assurances that the local and foreign press would be allowed to report freely on cyclone-related news, including future reconstruction efforts.
Both ASEAN and the United Nations have publicly lauded the Burmese government for the collaborative spirit it demonstrated during the research and production of your joint assessment report. In view of that goodwill, we call upon you and ASEAN to urge Burmese officials to move toward even greater openness, including allowances for more press freedom, as your collaborative efforts deepen in the months and years ahead.
Thank you for your attention.