2014 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee
(Courtesy of ABC News)
Aung Zaw is the founder and editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy, a news organization first established in 1993 that is dedicated to Burma-related news through a monthly magazine and daily news site. Branded an “enemy of the state” by the former military regime, The Irrawaddy continues to come under pressure from President Thein Sein’s current quasi-civilian administration. Aung Zaw’s news outlets publish in both English and Burmese and are widely recognized as authoritative and independent. Aung Zaw, who until recently was blacklisted from entering Burma, frequently writes on issues related to press freedom.
Operating from exile for nearly two decades, The Irrawaddy remains one of the few publications to provide critical news and well-researched analysis of Burma’s previous rights-abusing military and current military-backed regimes. News publications based inside the country were heavily censored until August 2012. Since then, at least eight journalists have been detained for reporting on issues considered sensitive to national security, according to CPJ research.
The Irrawaddy has often been targeted for its critical reporting. Its website was frequently hit with believed government cyber-attacks ahead of and during critical news events, including during the government’s lethal suppression of the 2007 Buddhist monk-led Saffron Revolution. Since opening a bureau in Burma in late 2012, The Irrawaddy has come under rising government pressure, including moves to shorten the duration of staff visas and attempts to force the publication to change its established brand name. Early this year, Special Branch officers visited the Rangoon-based office and interrogated editors. Again in April, a senior general, also a member of the National Defense Security Council, summoned editors and asked them to tone down the outlet’s reporting on the government and military, but did not elaborate on specific issues.
Follow Aung Zaw on Twitter: @azburma
The text of Zaw’s acceptance speech, as prepared for delivery, is below.
Mingalabar! Thank you so much.
Our special thanks go to CPJ for this award which comes at a crucial period for my country, Burma–or Myanmar–where everything is still so unsettled that even our name remains a matter for debate!
It was in a spirit of some hope that my organization, The Irrawaddy, returned to set up an office in Yangon, almost two years ago.
When I returned in 2012, political prisoners had been released, censorship was being lifted, and the economy was being loosened up. Exiles were being invited to visit or return home.
Yet my grandmother, who is in her eighties, was genuinely worried about my trip. She sent me off telling me to do Buddhist chants to ward off any misfortunes.
Burmese people have had many reasons to fear the worst over the years. On my first visit, everyone I met, from ordinary people to activists, writers, politicians, former prisoners, and officials, showed such dynamism. There was energy and a sense of excitement.
Sadly, that feeling has not lasted. Recently we have seen serious backsliding.
In the media sector, reporters are facing increased scrutiny, arrests, intimidation, detention, and even death. In October, an activist reporter was killed in military custody.
Journalists are aware that Big Brother is still watching over us. The Ministry of Information, which formerly ran a draconian censorship board, still plays a powerful role. Our relations with the government remain rocky–which probably means we are doing our job well.
But we will soldier on–telling stories, taking risks, and asking questions the government and others don’t like to hear or they are uncomfortable about.
One of the questions we continue to ask on the very nature of this reform process is: Is it a real break with the past, or just a repackaging of the old structures?
On his recent visit, President Obama acknowledged the backsliding but also declared “the reforms are real.” I have to respectfully say that many Burmese people are not at all convinced.
What is real and what is not real? Sometimes we worry that our international friends tend to airbrush some of the realities we live with.
In fact, Burma is still a “land of green.” I don’t mean our beautiful forests and trees. I mean the uniforms of those who remain in power–the same military men who turned this beautiful country into one of the poorest in the world.
But let me tell you this–we are on the side of press freedom, democracy, and justice and will continue to defend freedom and continue to promote independent journalism.
Meanwhile, I must tell you that this award means a lot to my dedicated team and Burmese journalists who defend press freedom in my country. It is a sign that we are not alone and that the world is still watching what is happening in Burma.
Support Aung Zaw and CPJ’s fight for press freedom in Burma by tweeting:
Tweet President Thein Sein: Release all jailed journalists in #Burma and stop the harassment of the media #IPFA
Three facts about press freedom in Burma:
- The country is holding at least eight journalists in prison in relation to their work.
- Authorities use national security-related laws to imprison journalists. President Thein Sein’s government has also used various outdated and repressive legislation to silence and censor critical news outlets.
- The current government has backtracked significantly on media reforms.
April 3, 2013: “Keep Myanmar on Track,” The New York Times
February 23, 2012: “Five Days in Burma,” The Irrawaddy
September 20, 2011: “New strains for Burma’s exile media,” Committee to Protect Journalists