Attacks on the Press 2009: Burma

Top Developments
• Some political prisoners freed, but eight journalists still held.
• Government censors all print publications, controls broadcasters.

Key Statistic
1st: Ranking on CPJ’s Worst Countries to Be a Blogger.

Throughout the year, Burma’s ruling junta emphasized its plans to move toward multiparty democracy after decades of military rule, a long-promised transition that dissidents and others viewed as a sham to further consolidate the military’s power. As the country geared up for general elections in 2010–the first since the military annulled the 1990 elections, which were won overwhelmingly by the political opposition–authorities maintained strict censorship over the local news media and held at least nine journalists behind bars.


Main Index
Regional Analysis:
As fighting surges,
so does danger to press

Makings of a Massacre
Country Summaries
North Korea
Sri Lanka
Other developments

The military regime came under heavy international pressure, particularly from the United States and the European Union, to release the estimated 2,100 political prisoners it held in detention, including Aung San Suu Kyi, party leader of the National League for Democracy. As part of a mass amnesty of 7,114 prisoners on September 18, three journalists were released among an estimated 120 political detainees. 

Among those freed was Eine Khine Oo, a reporter with the Ecovision weekly journal who was sentenced to two years in prison in 2008 for reporting on a demonstration of Cyclone Nargis victims seeking aid in front of a U.N. office in Rangoon. Weekly Eleven reporter Kyaw Kyaw Thant, who was sentenced to seven years on antistate charges for covering the same demonstration, was also released. Thet Zin, editor of the Myanmar Nation weekly news journal, was freed in the amnesty after being sentenced in 2008 to seven years in prison on illegal printing charges. At the time of Zin’s arrest, police seized video footage of Buddhist monk-led protests and a critical report written by U.N. Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro from the journal’s offices.

The military government’s revolving prison door opened to at least three other journalists, all of whom were being held without publicly disclosed charges in late year. Police and military intelligence officials arrested Thant Zin Soe, an editor and translator for the journal Foreign Affairs, at his Rangoon home in October, according to the Burma Media Association, a press freedom advocacy group. Paing Soe Oo, a freelance online commentator writing under the name Jay Paing, was arrested the same month in Rangoon. The media association said it believed he was suspected of providing information to foreign news and nongovernmental organizations. A video journalist known as “T,” who worked undercover for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma, was arrested in mid-year. The Rory Peck Trust announced “T’s” detention in November 18 as it honored him and an unnamed colleague for their work on a documentary, “Orphans of the Burmese Cyclone,” according to international news reports.

Exile-run media groups based outside the country told CPJ that some of their undercover stringers were still being held in detention after a crackdown on political dissent in the wake of 2007 antigovernment street protests. They remained anonymous out of fear the authorities would extend their prison sentences if they discovered the detainees had sent news, images, or videos of the protests over the Internet to overseas news organizations critical of the regime.

In April, CPJ ranked Burma as the worst place in the world to be a blogger because of the extreme measures the government had implemented to curb Internet freedom. Private Internet penetration is very small–only about 1 percent, according to the Internet research group OpenNet Initiative–so most citizens access the Internet in cybercafés. Authorities heavily regulate those cafés, requiring them, for example, to enforce censorship rules. The government, which shut down the Internet altogether during a popular uprising in 2007, has the capability to monitor e-mail and other communication and to block users from viewing Web sites of political opposition groups, according to OpenNet.

CPJ’s assessment was also motivated by the continued detention of bloggers Nay Phone Latt, who was sentenced in 2008 to 20 and a half years on violations of the Electronic and Video acts, and Maung Thura, who was initially sentenced to 59 years in part for communicating with exiled dissidents and giving interviews to foreign media.

Maung Thura, who maintained a blog known as Zarganar-windoor, which loosely translates as “Tweezer’s Outlook,” had made comments to the BBC critical of the government’s initial response to Cyclone Nargis. In January, family members were denied visitation rights after they had traveled more than 560 miles (900 kilometers) from Rangoon to Myitk Yina Prison in Kachin state. In early 2009, a Rangoon divisional court cut eight and a half years from Nay Phone Latt’s sentence and 24 years from Maung Thura’s term. The actions came just weeks before a U.N. human rights official was scheduled to visit the country.

Burma remained one of the most oppressive places in the world to be a print journalist. The Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Board (PSRB) continued to review all articles before publication and extended its reach to Web-based formats. The time-consuming and often arbitrary process forced nearly all privately held news publications in Burma to publish on either a weekly or monthly basis.

Burmese journalists who met with CPJ in 2009 said there were more than 50 general newsweeklies and as many as 130 others covering sports and other innocuous topics. There were no independently run broadcast operations in the country, but journalists estimated that a large majority of the population openly listened to broadcasts from the BBC and the U.S. government-funded Voice of America.

The visiting journalists said editors used two different pencils to edit copy: Blue pencils were used for line edits, while red pencils indicated that phrases or topics were forbidden by the government’s censorship board. That censorship was strictly enforced for news stories that referred to the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, which left 140,000 dead or missing and affected an estimated 2.4 million Burmese citizens, according to U.N. estimates. The exile-run Mizzima news agency quoted Burmese editors and journalists as saying that the PSRB had rejected materials for publication that recounted the severity of the storm’s destruction or showed victims still suffering from the storm’s impact.

“We cannot be critical of the government’s efforts on recovery,” said the editor of one weekly journal who was quoted in a Mizzima news report. “Our stories that say that victims are still suffering are rejected. We must publish only optimistic reports.” The state-run media simultaneously ran several news stories that portrayed positively the government-led rehabilitation work in cyclone-hit regions.

On August 21, the PSRB formally banned and withdrew the publishing license for the weekly news journal Phoenix over violations of censorship rules and regulations, according to a Mizzima report. Phoenix‘s publisher, known as Maj. Mar-J, had earlier written satirical articles about the regime’s radical decision to move the national capital from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, a newly built and highly fortified center just outside the central town of Pyinmana.

Foreign reporters were also targeted for harassment. On May 7, the government expelled two U.S. journalists, Jerry Redfern and Karen Coates, who were in the country to teach a PSRB-approved course on feature writing and photography. They were arrested without explanation in the central city of Mandalay, transported under guard on an overnight train to Rangoon, and deported without charge to Thailand. “They asked us nothing, told us nothing, searched nothing, took nothing,” the two said in a prepared statement released after landing in Bangkok.

The regime also threatened those who published critical articles in prominent foreign news publications. On September 9, U Win Tin, former journalist and current National League for Democracy co-leader, wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post titled “An Election the Burmese People Don’t Need,” which openly criticized the military government’s plan to hold voting before achieving national reconciliation with the political opposition and while detaining more than 2,000 political prisoners.

U Win Tin was detained and interrogated on September 12 but released without charge the same day. A former editor-in-chief of the Hanthawati daily newspaper, he served 19 years of a 20-year prison sentence on various charges, including inciting treason against the state for writing and distributing pamphlets during antigovernment uprisings in 1988 that were crushed by the military. He was released in November 2008 after suffering two heart attacks in prison. International advocacy groups campaigned for years for his release.