Attacks on the Press 2010: Burma

Top Developments
• Junta bars foreign reporters, censors speech prior to national election.
• Aung San Suu Kyi freed, but government still jails journalists, critics.

Key Statistic
13: Journalists imprisoned as of December 1, the fourth‐highest figure in the world.

After nearly five decades of uninterrupted military rule, Burma moved toward an uncertain new era in November when it staged national elections and freed the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The new parliament, although dominated by the military junta’s chosen candidates, was the first civilian government in the country since 1962. Military leaders, notorious for their international isolation, sought international legitimacy through the election. “But the vote was so rigged, it had the opposite effect,” The Washington Post noted in an editorial. “Rules were written so that, no matter how people voted, the military would retain control; but even so, the regime could not resist Election Day intimidation and ballot-box stuffing.”


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CPJ research showed that military authorities censored and controlled election-related news, suspended local-language publications, targeted Internet sites, and jailed exile-run news services’ undercover reporters. In October, the government-controlled Union Election Commission announced that it would not allow foreign journalists into the country to cover the elections. Thein Soe, the commission’s chairman, justified the ban by noting that international agencies already had local staff based in the country, according to news reports. Bangkok- and Singapore-based foreign journalists told CPJ they had applied for work visas and been refused, although several reporters were able to enter the country on tourist visas.

The ban on international journalists was one in a series of directives intended to silence independent reporting and dissenting voices before the vote. On July 20, the Ministry of Information’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Board, the government’s main censorship unit, issued a directive that required local publications to directly quote and not paraphrase the constitution, electoral laws, and Union Election Commission rules in their campaign news coverage. Publications that violated the directive risked the revocation of their publishing licenses and other undefined “stern actions,” according to the directive. Censors also barred the use of the phrase “free and fair” in news stories that referred to the elections. On September 14, the Union Election Commission issued a notice that restricted the topics that candidates could address while speaking over state-controlled radio and television. Forbidden subjects were broadly defined as any speech that “harmed security, the rule of law, and community peace.” Candidates were also barred from discussing policies or making any media statements that “tarnished” the image of the state or armed forces.

The rigged balloting drew international condemnation from the United States and others. The Union Solidarity and Development Party, the party of the ruling junta, won more than 75 percent of contested seats in the national and regional parliaments, according to news reports.

The national election was the first since 1990, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won by a landslide only to see the military discard the results and retain power. Through a succession of house arrests, the military kept Aung San Suu Kyi out of the public spotlight for 15 of the next 21 years. A week after the 2010 election, the government ended her most recent, seven-year-long house arrest. Thousands of supporters rallied at her party’s Rangoon headquarters to hear her first words. “Democracy is when the people keep a government in check,” she told the crowd, The New York Times reported. “To achieve democracy, we need to create a network, not just in our country but around the world.” The 65-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate said she would seek “national reconciliation,” adding, “I am prepared to talk with anyone.”

At least 13 journalists remained in jail when CPJ conducted its annual worldwide census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. The junta increasingly used the harsh Electronics Act–which broadly bans unauthorized use of electronic media, including the Internet, to send information outside the country–to suppress and intimidate reporters who worked for foreign or exile-run news organizations. Because Burma’s local media operate under strict state censorship, exile-run and other foreign media filled the news gap with critical reporting and comment.

The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based news organization run by Burmese exiles and known for its hard-hitting journalism, was particularly targeted. In June, DVB produced an investigative report, carried by global broadcaster Al-Jazeera, that probed the junta’s perceived nuclear weapons ambitions. Another award-winning documentary, “Burma VJ,” highlighted the risks that DVB’s undercover journalists took while reporting on the 2007 Saffron Revolution, the Buddhist monk-led revolt that was eventually crushed with lethal military force.

DVB publicly confirmed that five of its reporters were imprisoned in late year, but Deputy Director Khin Maung Win told CPJ that several other DVB undercover reporters were behind bars as well. DVB has declined to identify them due to fears that authorities would treat them more harshly if they were found to be undercover reporters.

On January 27, a Rangoon-based prison court sentenced DVB reporter Ngwe Soe Lin, also known as Tun Kyaw, to 13 years in prison on charges related to the Electronics and Immigration acts. The journalist was first arrested in June 2009 after taking video footage of children orphaned by the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster. The documentary, titled “Orphans of Burma’s Cyclone,” was later recognized with a Rory Peck Award for best documentary. DVB had previously referred to Ngwe Soe Lin only as “T” in an attempt to conceal from authorities his identity as an undercover DVB reporter.

His conviction followed a 27-year jail term handed down on December 30, 2009, to DVB reporter Hla Hla Win, who was similarly charged under the Electronics Act. She was first arrested on September 11, 2009, on her way back from a DVB reporting assignment in Pakokku Township in central Burma, where she had conducted interviews with Buddhist monks for a report on the second anniversary of the 2007 uprising.

On April 15, authorities arrested DVB reporter Sithu Zeya while he was filming the aftermath of a bomb explosion that killed nine and injured 170 in the old capital, Rangoon, during a Buddhist New Year celebration. DVB said the 21-year-old reporter was tortured while in police custody and, under duress, confessed that his father, Maung Maung Zeya, also worked secretly as a DVB reporter. Maung Maung Zeya was arrested two days later in his Rangoon home. The father-son reporting team was charged under the Unlawful Associations, Immigration, and Electronic acts and awaited a court verdict in late year.

On October 13, Nyi Nyi Tun, editor of the local-language news publication Kandarawaddy, was sentenced to 13 years in prison for “crimes against the state.” He was convicted of violating the Unlawful Associations, Immigration (Emergency Provisions), and Wireless Telegraphy acts, as well as other laws, according to Mizzima, a Burmese exile-run news agency based in New Delhi. After his arrest in October 2009, authorities shut down his news journal, which operated in the country’s Kayah special region.

The government held nearly 2,200 political prisoners throughout the year, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, a Thailand-based monitoring organization.

Cyber-attacks were launched on September 27 against three exile-run Burma news outlets–Irrawaddy, Mizzima News, and DVB–raising questions of government involvement. The distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks shut down Irrawaddy‘s main website and temporarily blocked access to Mizzima’s sites by overwhelming their servers with artificially created attempts to access their sites. Irrawaddy said in a statement that the attacks were more severe than those that forced its site to shut down for three days in 2008. Mizzima Editor-in-Chief Soe Myint told CPJ that most of the DDOS traffic appeared to have originated from two sites that his technical staff said were based in India.

Inside the country, the government continued to restrict Internet freedom, maintaining blocks on exile-run and foreign news sources and foreign-hosted e-mail services. Authorities tightened already strict censorship guidelines for print publications, which have long been forced to publish on a weekly basis to allow time for state censors to approve their copy. The government’s censorship arm suspended 10 local publications for the extensive coverage they gave to Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, the Burma Media Association reported in November.

Foreign reporters were also singled out for harassment. On March 27, Bangkok-based CNN reporter Dan Rivers was deported after entering the country on a journalist visa to cover the junta’s annual Armed Forces Day parade. After traveling five hours with other foreign reporters from the Rangoon airport to the new capital, Naypyidaw, Rivers was denied accreditation for the event and told by officials that he must leave the country.

“There was no explanation, no apology, and no hanging around,” Rivers wrote on his blog about the episode, which he said police had videotaped. He was driven by police and immigration officials to Rangoon’s airport, where his passport was withheld until just minutes before his flight departed. It was the second time that the journalist was expelled from the country; his previous deportation was prompted by CNN’s on-the-ground coverage of the government’s weak response to Cyclone Nargis. In November, authorities detained APF journalist Toru Yamaji for entering the country without a visa in the border town of Myawaddy, where troops and ethnic Karen insurgents exchanged fire during the election. He was deported two days later.

A few private media groups discreetly pushed to open new space for reporters. Three local-language news publications, Foreign Affairs, Living Color, and The Voice, partnered to support Myanmar Egress, a nongovernmental organization that held training courses, including sessions on mass communications and advocacy. The military government also allowed foreign- and local-led journalism training sessions, including short courses in election and environmental reporting. One of the courses introduced man-on-the-street interviews to many local publications, according to one trainer, who requested anonymity. Local news journals subsequently published comments about rising food prices and the lack of electricity.

In certain instances, local media fought back against official harassment. Aung Thu Nyein, a Weekly Eleven Journal intern reporter, was detained by police on September 13 for taking photos of the damage caused by flooding in central Magway Division. Weekly Eleven Journal editors traveled to the region to protest his detention and threatened legal action against the police. The reporter was released days later without charge.