Black smoke rises from burning buildings in Meikhtila, where Buddhists and Muslims have clashed since Wednesday. (AFP/Mantharlay)
Black smoke rises from burning buildings in Meikhtila, where Buddhists and Muslims have clashed since Wednesday. (AFP/Mantharlay)

Journalists threatened in sectarian violence in Burma

Bangkok, March 25, 2013–Violent mobs have threatened journalists covering communal riots in central Burma and destroyed their reporting materials, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls on authorities to make the security of journalists working in the violence-hit area a top priority.

Clashes between Buddhist and Muslim residents erupted in the central town of Meikhtila on March 20, resulting in at least 32 deaths, dozens of injuries, and an unknown number of arson attacks, according to news reports. On Friday, President Thein Sein declared a state of emergency that gave the military exceptional powers to contain the fighting. The Associated Press reported that the sectarian violence had spread to two other townships in central Burma over the weekend.

Journalists working for local and foreign news agencies were confronted by weapon-wielding mobs, some led by Buddhist monks, that blocked them from reporting on the riots. Radio Free Asia reported on Friday that a group of armed Buddhist monks threatened a group of nine journalists, including one of its reporters, who were photographing monks as they damaged a mosque. The monks put a knife to one journalist’s throat and seized and destroyed the memory cards from two reporters’ digital cameras, the report said. The journalists were eventually allowed to seek refuge in a nearby Buddhist monastery, from where they were later evacuated by police.

The Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent TV broadcaster and online news provider, reported that sword-wielding rioters threatened one of its reporters and deleted footage from his camera. The Associated Press reported that a Buddhist monk who covered his face placed a foot-long dagger at the throat of an AP reporter and demanded he hand over his camera. The AP report said the photographer handed over his camera’s memory card.

There have been no reports yet of any journalists being killed or seriously injured in the violence, according to CPJ research. Some journalists have decided to leave the city due to their concerns that authorities could not guarantee their personal security, according to The Irrawaddy, an independent Burmese-run news magazine. The publication also reported that rioters had threatened one of its reporters and forced him to delete his footage of the violence.

“We condemn the threats and intimidation of journalists covering the recent communal riots in Burma,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “Authorities are obliged to ensure the security of journalists working in conflict areas. We are concerned that Thein Sein’s administration has not prioritized its obligation to protect the press.”

News agency photographs of the violence in Meikhtila published over the Internet have included images of smoldering burnt bodies in public streets and victims who appear to have been bound before they were killed.

News coverage of communal riots between Buddhists and Muslims in western Rakhine State last year showed that Buddhist monks were often involved in the violence that left 180 killed and over 110,000 displaced. Government officials claimed that irresponsible news coverage, including the use of racially charged language and graphic photographs, fanned the flames of that conflict.