Burma’s already beleaguered journalists came under heavy attack after massive Cyclone Nargis pounded the country’s southern coastal region in May, killing an estimated 84,500 people and severely affecting another 2.4 million, according to U.N. estimates. As local and international criticism grew over a slow and inadequate response to the natural disaster, the military junta intensified censorship, working to suppress news that graphically portrayed the extraordinary scale of the storm’s devastation. The silence was lethal.
The Information Ministry’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) sent a directive to editorial offices outlining how the humanitarian crisis could be covered; it banned publication of photographs that showed dead bodies and any critical reports about the government’s response. The reclusive regime initially refused international emergency assistance, including from the United Nations, but later agreed to allow limited outside help after the scale of the disaster and displacement became apparent.
At least five local journalists were jailed because of cyclone coverage the authorities considered in breach of its strict guidelines, according to CPJ research. Eine Khine Oo, a photographer on assignment for Ecovision Journal, and Kyaw Kyaw Thant, a freelance journalist, were arrested on June 10 while covering a demonstration staged by cyclone victims in front of U.N. offices near Rangoon. Eine Khine Oo was later sentenced to two years in prison, Kyaw Kyaw Thant to seven years.
Myanmar Tribune Editor-in-Chief Aung Kyaw San was arrested and his publication was closed June 15 after he returned to Rangoon from a reporting trip on citizen-led relief efforts in the worst-hit Irrawaddy Delta region. Charges were not disclosed, and his case was pending in late year.
The most astonishing reprisal was aimed at the popular blogger and comedian Maung Thura, better known as Zarganar. He was arrested at his residence on June 4 soon after he gave a television interview to the BBC in which he said the Burmese people were angry with the junta’s poor response to the disaster. The popular commentator, who allegedly filmed and distributed footage of relief efforts, was charged with seven different crimes, including violations of the Video Act and the Electronics Act. In November, he was sentenced to a total of 59 years in prison, according to news reports.
Using the same repressive laws, authorities arrested freelance journalist Zaw Thet Htwe for videotaping Maung Thura’s private citizen-led relief efforts for cyclone victims. Zaw Thet Htwe was sentenced to 19 years in prison during court proceedings in November.
As the government cracked down on local journalists, it also barred foreign reporters from entering the country to cover the humanitarian disaster. Scores of foreign reporters were left waiting in Bangkok after the Burmese Embassy there refused to issue journalist visas for them. Many of the foreign reporters who did manage to enter the country on tourist visas were interrogated and deported when discovered by the authorities.
On May 5, BBC reporter Andrew Harding was turned around at the Rangoon airport when he tried to enter the country on a tourist visa, according to news reports. Time magazine journalist Andrew Marshall, who reported undercover for a week from the Irrawaddy Delta, was questioned and deported May 20, he told CPJ.
Ben Gurr, a photographer for the Times of London, was tracked down at his hotel. After questioning him, authorities seized DVD copies of his photographs and forced him to delete the images from his computer. He was deported that day, according to Gurr, who communicated with CPJ by e-mail. Authorities confiscated four CDs of photos from South Korean freelance journalist Lee Yu Kyong and then deported her June 22, according to the exile-run Mizzima news agency.
Nonetheless, many reporters were able to send over the Internet detailed articles and images of the disaster to outside news organizations. Burmese exile-run news outlets—including the online news site The Irrawaddy, and the Mizzima and Democratic Voice of Burma news agencies—carried detailed accounts of the cyclone and trenchant assessments of the government’s response. A CPJ investigation into Burma’s Internet censorship before the cyclone struck found that undercover journalists continued to find ways around the government’s firewalls, using proxy servers, encryption, and other techniques.
Authorities imposed new restrictions on Internet use, including a requirement that all privately run Internet cafés post a sign warning customers that accessing government-restricted materials was a crime punishable by imprisonment. Certain cafés in Rangoon started to check the contents of customers’ memory sticks before allowing them to plug into computers, according to CPJ interviews.
Other café administrators were told they could be held personally responsible for the material their customers viewed. Underscoring the heightened surveillance, blogger Nay Phone Latt was arrested January 29 at an Internet café outside Rangoon after he posted material critical of the regime to his blog. He was charged September 30 under the 1950 Emergency Provision Act and the Electronic Act in a Rangoon court. During closed judicial proceedings held at the Insein Prison compound on November 10, Nay Phone Latt was sentenced to 20 years and six months in prison, according to the Burma Media Association (BMA), a press freedom advocacy group.
Censorship and harassment of the local news media remained pervasive, and all editorial content required pre-approval from the PSRD. The weekly Burmese-language edition of Myanmar Times was forced to cancel its January 18 issue after the previous one carried an unapproved Agence France-Presse story about a state-ordered 167-fold rise in fees for satellite-dish licenses.
The price increase was widely viewed as a government attempt to suppress access to foreign television news stations, including the BBC and Al-Jazeera, which gained in popularity from their coverage of the 2007 pro-democracy protests that became known as the Saffron Revolution.
About the same time, several local publications were required to publish government-drafted articles and commentaries in favor of a military-drafted new constitution, which was put to a national referendum and approved on May 10. The BMA said the government had drafted a list of journalists to be kept under surveillance in the run-up to the vote and censored an article by Ludu Sein Win that argued against the proposed charter.
Running afoul of the PSRD had harsh consequences. On February 15, police arrested Myanmar Nation journalists Thet Zin and Sein Win Maung. During the raid, police officials confiscated undisclosed documents, DVDs, the reporters’ cell phones, and a copy of U.N. Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro’s report on the killings associated with the government’s 2007 crackdown on antigovernment protests. In closed proceedings in November, they were each sentenced to seven years in prison for violations of the Printing and Publishing Law, according to news reports. Myanmar Nation ceased publishing.
In a rare positive development, 78-year-old U Win Tin, who served 19 years of a 20-year sentence, was released in September along with 9,000 other prisoners. Weeks later, government censors ordered the weekly Action Times to stop publishing for one month because it referred to U Win Tin as sayagyi, or great master, in its coverage of the mass release, according to Mizzima.
In all, Burma was holding 14 journalists in prison when CPJ conducted its annual census on December 1. It was the world’s third worst jailer of journalists, behind only China and Cuba.
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