Burma is at a crossroads between a tradition of military control and prospects for a democratic future. (AP/Khin Maung Win)

In Burma, transition neglects press freedom

Thein Sein’s new civilian government has promised reform, but authorities continue to censor and imprison journalists. Those who report for critical, exile-run media remain at great risk. A CPJ special report by Shawn W. Crispin

Burma is at a crossroads between a tradition of military control and prospects for a democratic future. (AP/Khin Maung Win)
Burma is at a crossroads between a tradition of military control and prospects for a democratic future. (AP/Khin Maung Win)

Published September 20, 2011

Away from the probing surveillance of Special Branch intelligence agents, a Burmese editor ticks off the recent stories the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department, Burma’s powerful state censorship body, would not allow him to publish. The banned topics were wide-ranging: volatility in fuel prices; recent land purchases by Chinese investors around the city of Mandalay; a shortage of fresh water near a southern coast development. 

After his paper published a seemingly innocuous story about the falling price of SIM cards—without the censors’ approval—authorities reacted swiftly in suspending the publication for two weeks. “We are pushing the limits as much as we can,” said the editor during a recent trip to Bangkok. As a small sign of success, he pointed to the publication of a recent series on the struggles of farmers facing high debts. But the censorship process remains arbitrary, intensive, and highly restrictive. “It’s like fighting with a spear while on horseback to get news published. … We must prepare many extra stories each week to fill the spaces for stories that will inevitably be cut,” said the editor, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal.

More in this report
CPJ’s recommendations
EU conflicted on sanctions
Strains for exile media
Journalists in prison
Video: Undercover heroes
In print
Download the pdf

Despite a recent transition from military to democratic rule, Burma’s heavily censored media is still among the most restricted in the world. The historically military-run Southeast Asian country held its first democratic elections in more than two decades in November 2010 and installed a nominally civilian government in March of this year. President Thein Sein, a former army general who served as prime minister in the previous military junta, has sought international recognition for the transition, urging the United States and European countries to drop the economic sanctions they have maintained for more than a decade and a half in response to the military regime’s abysmal human rights record.

While the elections symbolically ended nearly five decades of military rule, the shift to date has been more cosmetic than substantive. Many former high-ranking generals have merely swapped their army khakis for civilian business suits while retaining their top government posts and authoritarian ways. The transition has sparked an important debate about the country’s future direction, with many international governments and institutions evaluating their policies on Burma in light of the elections and the government’s promises of reform. In a much discussed March 30 speech, Thein Sein hinted at a more liberal media approach, saying that the press should play the role of the “fourth estate,” as it does in established democracies. He has also spoken of the need for economic reforms and better governance in one of Asia’s poorest and most mismanaged nations.

But with state censors still actively spiking news stories, pervasive state surveillance of reporters’ communications and movements, and at least 14 journalists and media support workers behind bars, the government has made virtually no progress on press freedom, a CPJ analysis has found. Under Thein Sein’s elected regime, authorities continue to systematically harass, sanction, and imprison journalists, particularly those who report undercover for exile-run media groups.

CPJ interviews with seven Burma-based journalists and six journalists working for exile media revealed that Thein Sein’s government has not dismantled the extensive mechanisms of control and repression that the previous military regime employed to stifle independent reporting and critical commentary. Since last year’s elections, two journalists have been sentenced to long prison terms and more than a dozen publications have been suspended for their news reporting.

In a sign of the unchanged times, journalists with private media groups said they were barred from entering and reporting from the new national parliament when it officially opened in March. Four journalists were temporarily detained for taking pictures from a distance of the new parliament building, according to a reporter familiar with the arrests. (State media were allowed to film leaders’ prepared speeches but not pose questions to parliamentarians, who themselves were required to submit for review to the president any planned public statements two weeks in advance of the session.)

Censorship rules are so extensive that private news publications cannot publish daily. (Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)
Censorship rules are so extensive that private news publications cannot publish daily. (Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun)

Underscoring the still-omnipotent official threat, nearly all of the Burma-based reporters and editors who spoke with CPJ requested anonymity due to fears of possible reprisal if their names appeared in a report critical of the government. Two CPJ staff members and a freelance reporter working for CPJ were all denied visas to enter the country to conduct research for this report. No reasons were given for the denials.

“There is always a sense of fear that Big Brother is watching you,” said a local reporter with an international news agency who spoke with CPJ on condition of anonymity. “All of our phones are tapped, and we’re all under constant surveillance.” The reporter, a veteran, conducts most of his interviews from home to mitigate the risk of official eavesdropping. No foreign national journalists are legally accredited to work for international news organizations in Burma, and those who parachute in on assignment are often expelled for violations of the no-work terms of tourist visas.

On the surface, Burma-based editors and journalists say, there is a veneer of press freedom on the country’s newsstands. Privately owned and -run news publications have proliferated in recent years, with around 200 journals, magazines, and newspapers currently in circulation. Those publications, however, are heavily censored and are often forced to publish state-prepared news and commentaries that present the government and its policies in a glowing light. 

Due to time-consuming pre-censorship requirements, all privately run news publications are forced to publish on a weekly, rather than daily, basis. The government and military, meanwhile, fund and operate four newspapers that are permitted to publish on a daily basis and serve mainly as outlets for pro-government propaganda. The government also dominates the local broadcast media through four state-run TV channels and one radio station.


Exile media fills news gap

Outside of Burma, exile-run media groups consistently present a diverse range of news and views, including critical reporting on the government and military, along with their associated business interests. For nearly two decades, Burmese exile-run media groups—most prominently represented by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), Mizzima news agency, and The Irrawaddy news website, but also by a growing number of ethnic-based publications—have played an essential role in filling the domestic news gap caused by pervasive state censorship.

Undercover reporters for exile media document news that would otherwise go unreported. This photo from a Democratic Voice of Burma journalist shows a 2007 monk-led demonstration. (AP/DVB)
Undercover reporters for exile media document news that would otherwise go unreported. This photo from a Democratic Voice of Burma journalist shows a 2007 monk-led demonstration. (AP/DVB)

Many in-country reporters affiliated with private news publications also moonlight for exile media as a way to publish stories that have been spiked by the censorship board, according to exile news editors and in-country reporters who spoke with CPJ. They do so at considerable personal risk: Military authorities have charged and sentenced journalists to long prison terms using laws aimed specifically at curbing the flow of information to exile and international media.

To date, Thein Sein’s administration and parliament have made no move to abolish or amend these draconian and highly arbitrary laws. The 2004 Electronics Act, one such law, imposes harsh prison sentences for using electronic devices, including cameras and computers, to create, receive, or disseminate information that authorities deem to be state secrets or threats to national tranquility. Authorities have also used the Immigration and Unlawful Association acts to harshly sentence journalists who work with exile media.

In November 2010, authorities forced Rangoon’s estimated 500 Internet cafés—where undercover exile reporters have traditionally filed their news, pictures, and video clips to outside media—to install closed-circuit cameras, screen-capture programs, and keystroke-logging software to monitor and store users’ online activities. A ban on the use of flash drives in Internet cafés—imposed in May by the Ministry of Communications, Posts, and Telegraphs—was viewed by exile editors as an attempt to further hamper their reporters’ ability to file over the Internet. (Less than 1 percent of Burma’s population has home Internet access due to prohibitive costs and bureaucratic hurdles.)

Exile media have also been plagued by a series of distributed denial-of-service (DDOS) attacks that have shuttered or temporarily blocked their websites. While the Burmese government has not taken responsibility for the attacks, exile editors who spoke with CPJ noted that the attacks typically coincide with news events and political milestones deemed sensitive to the regime.

Aung Zaw, founder and editor of The Irrawaddy, told CPJ that exile media have been subjected to other, invasive online harassment. This year, unknown hackers used password-cracking software to penetrate The Irrawaddy’s central computer system and plant bogus news about a Burmese film star on its home page. He said he feared the security breach may have exposed databases that contained the identities of secret in-country sources and contributors.

In another move perceived as targeting exile media and their in-country reporters, authorities in February prohibited the use of online communication tools such as Skype and VZOchat, justifying the move on the basis that such services cause the state provider to lose income from overseas calls. Exile media groups believe, however, that the ban was imposed because of the government’s inability to monitor Voice over Internet Protocol communications.

Despite these restrictive measures, the exile-run DVB news service based in Oslo, Norway, has reported and produced a series of groundbreaking video reports that have spoken media truth to military power and won international accolades in the process. Its work has included exclusive footage of a 2007 military crackdown on Buddhist monk-led street demonstrations, during which troops killed at least 31 people and authorities shut down the Internet; and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster, which exposed the military government’s mismanagement of a human crisis that left more than 100,000 dead. During both crises, authorities rounded up and imprisoned journalists who sent unsanctioned news outside of the country.

More sensitive, perhaps, was a 2010 exposé produced by DVB and aired by Al-Jazeera that detailed the military’s alleged nuclear ambitions and U.N. resolution-defying links with North Korea. Covering topics that domestic media have been unable to touch due to state censorship, DVB’s documentaries can potentially reach millions of Burmese viewers through satellite transmission. (Government-licensed satellite dishes are common in Rangoon, although by law viewers are forbidden from accessing censored material such as DVB’s video reports.)

Burma is one of the world's worst jailers of the press. Many journalists are housed in the notorious Insein Prison, above. (AP)
Burma is one of the world’s worst jailers of the press. Many journalists are housed in the notorious Insein Prison, above. (AP)

Those reports have put DVB’s roughly 100 undercover, in-country reporters in the military’s line of fire. DVB claims that 17 of its secret video journalists, or VJs, are behind bars. Of those, 12 have remained unnamed due to DVB’s concerns that authorities would lengthen their sentences or worsen their already-substandard prison conditions if their professional affiliations were disclosed. 

“The government assumes we are enemies of the state,” said Toe Zaw Latt, DVB’s Thailand bureau chief, during a press conference in May to launch a global advocacy campaign for the release of the jailed reporters. “A democracy does not keep its journalists behind bars. … Theirs is still a culture of denial.” 

For DVB and other exile media groups, the regime’s self-proclaimed shift to democracy also presents existential risks. Foreign donor funding cuts, including cutbacks by Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, have forced exile-run groups to trim their news operations, casting many journalists and their families into uncertain futures and possible forced repatriation. DVB, for one, recently lost some funding and scaled back its broadcasts as a result, its editors say. Analysts say Burmese authorities are giving foreign governments and international organizations an “inside or outside” choice; those that scale back support of exile operations have a better chance of securing official approval for new programs inside the country.

The dynamic poses new risks for exiled Burmese journalists. Neighboring Thailand has traditionally provided sanctuary to Burmese dissident groups, but many in the exile community fear Bangkok could reverse course if building commercial ties and securing energy deals with Burma takes policy precedence. Many Thailand-based exile journalists lack proper travel documents, restricting their ability to travel to border areas to gather news and forcing them to write under pseudonyms to avoid drawing Thai officials’ attention to their presence.

A number of analysts and foreign journalists believe the international community is being led astray by the regime’s promises of reform. Bertil Lintner, a Chiang Mai-based journalist and DVB executive board member, believes that foreign donors are making a short-sighted mistake by reallocating their funds from outside to inside the country in expectation of democracy taking root any time soon.

“What’s happening now in Burma is consistent with the cycle of opening and closing seen since 1962 and is consistent with how the military has always exercised power. During every period of openness people think it’s a trend; history shows it is not,” Lintner said. “Journalists pushing boundaries inside Burma should be supported but not at the expense of exile media.” 

Lintner, author of several authoritative books on Burma’s politics, has himself been banned from entering the country since 1989. He argues that if exile media groups are allowed to collapse through funding cuts, it will be very difficult to re-establish their operations if it becomes evident that Burma’s democratic transition allows only nominal press freedom.

Marginal new space, severe old limits

Certain politically connected media owners who openly support the idea of military-led political change, however, see reason for hope. Nay Win Maung, founder of The Voice weekly news journal, said the media environment has improved under the Thein Sein regime. Authorities have allowed his affiliated nongovernmental organization, Egress, to conduct media training sessions and other civil society-promoting activities, some of which have received funding from Western donors.

“It’s a matter of packaging [the news],” he said during an interview in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he was scheduled to deliver a lecture to ethnic minority groups about their rights under Burma’s new constitution. “If you focus on policy rather than criticism, it’s not seen as harmful to the state.”

Due to his close family connections to powerful military generals, ties he acknowledged in an interview with CPJ, Nay Win Maung is one of the few journalists inside Burma who is willing to speak with foreign reporters on the record and for attribution. Nonetheless, his publication faces frequent penalties, including a one-week suspension in December imposed for publishing front-page photos of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a size larger and in a format different from what censors allowed. (Nine other outlets were sanctioned for similar violations.) Nay Win Maung said The Voice has been suspended five times since 2004; over the same period, intelligence agents have twice searched his house for news material.

Jeff Hodson, a former Internews training specialist who has worked with many in-country journalists and closely monitors the Burmese-language press, also sees signs of improvement in the reporting environment. In particular, he said, local journalists can now report on many economy-related issues that were considered off-limits as recently as 2009. Earlier this year, he noted, authorities phased out a requirement that journalists request and receive permission letters from government agencies before reporting on their activities. “It effectively removed a second layer of censorship,” Hodson said. 

On June 8, the government also dropped requirements that non-news publications, including those covering sports, fiction, art, and health, be reviewed by government censors prior to publication. But observers such as Hodson believe the move simply places a heavier self-censorship onus on editors while leaving in place the threat of punitive fines and bans if boundaries are crossed. 

The limited new space has opened largely because private media have consistently challenged the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department’s censorship decisions. The widely read Burmese-language newspaper 7 Day News repeatedly defied censorship directives to cut sections from its news stories, including a report before Thein Sein’s appointment this year that suggested the military had rigged last year’s election, according to Hodson. The publication escaped with a warning, but other outlets have been suspended for weeks at a time for censorship violations.

Several journalists interviewed by CPJ said they typically resubmit stories, often without revisions, that censors already rejected. One freelancer who spoke on condition of anonymity recently filed the same story on an environmental degradation issue through a dozen different private newspapers until the censorship board finally allowed its publication, albeit in shortened form. In what the reporter likened to a “cat and mouse game,” she has been asked on 70 occasions to sign a pledge not to violate censorship standards. She said she frequently changes pseudonyms once stories filed under one of her many pen names are rejected by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department. 

Thein Sein's administration agreed to hold a press conference--then took questions from only three reporters. (AP/Khin Maung Win)
Thein Sein’s administration agreed to hold a press conference–then took questions from only three reporters. (AP/Khin Maung Win)

Faced with these severe restrictions, a group of senior Burmese journalists has lobbied the new government for more rights and standardized rules, including regular press briefings with ministers and politicians, according to one of the reporters involved with the appeal. They made their case in a private letter to the president in April, citing new statutes that require the president to form a media advocacy body and assign a dedicated government spokesperson.

The president did not formally respond, but on August 12, amid talks with the Suu Kyi-led opposition, the administration held its first formal press briefing, although it allowed questions from only three reporters. That same week, the government announced through state media the formation of a new “spokespersons and information team” to be led by Information Minister Kyaw Hsan and tasked with holding press conferences on political, economic, and security topics.

While the private media’s push represents a positive force for change, the reality is that the new space for reporters is marginal and still subject to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department’s arbitrary standards. In-country journalists and editors who spoke with CPJ said that banned topics are still wide-reaching and inconsistent with a functioning democracy.

Most notable, they say, is the lack of any probing reports on the personalities or business interests of prominent politicians or military members. No critical commentary has been allowed on the new government’s lack of transparency, a legacy of the military regime that critics say fostered rampant corruption.

Exile media editors note that in-country publications have been silent on recent fighting between the Burmese army and ethnic insurgent groups in the country’s eastern borderlands. The armed clashes have otherwise made global headlines, with international news reports indicating that under-resourced and poorly trained government troops have suffered significant setbacks in their counter-insurgency campaign.

Nor have authorities allowed local media to report freely on the large-scale and often controversial infrastructure projects under way across the country. Those include China-financed pipelines and hydro-power dams, designed to help China meet its burgeoning energy demands but criticized for causing environmental damage and displacing local communities.

The still-yawning gap between local and exile news content was recently documented by Memo 98, a Slovakia-based media monitoring organization that analyzed Burma-related news coverage before last year’s elections and for six weeks soon after Thein Sein was appointed national leader. Despite the shift from military to democratic rule, the group’s findings showed no discernible change in the local media’s tone, emphasis, or bias.

Memo 98’s analysis of state-run Myanmar TV, for instance, showed that the station dedicated less than a half percent of its total coverage to opposition leader Suu Kyi, while the activities of Thein Sein and his two vice presidents accounted for nearly 96 percent of coverage. The military-owned Myawaddy TV dedicated none of its coverage to Suu Kyi, according to the monitoring group’s findings.

The press freedom-related research underscored the lack of genuine democratic change in Burma and the still crucial role that exile media play in presenting diverse news, including critical reporting on the president, government, and military. It’s a check-and-balances role that both old and new regimes have been at pains to suppress, and one the international community should continue to support if its objective is the promotion of meaningful democracy for Burma.

Shawn W. Crispin is CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. He is the author of the 2008 CPJ special report, “Burma’s Firewall Fighters.”

CPJ’s Recommendations

To the Burmese government:

  • Release all imprisoned journalists immediately and unconditionally. CPJ research shows at least 14 journalists and media support workers were imprisoned as of September 1, 2011. 
  • Stop the detention and harassment of reporters who gather news and file stories for exile-run and international media.
  • Immediately implement reforms to bring the nation’s laws and practices in line with international standards for press freedom and freedom of expression. Put an immediate end to all state censorship of news publications.
  • Repeal laws and halt practices aimed at restricting Internet freedom. Stop the surveillance of online users at Internet cafés and lift the blocks on international and exile-run news sites.
  • Abolish or amend all laws, including the Electronics Act, the Unlawful Association Act, and the Immigration Act, that are habitually applied and abused to restrict press freedom and punish independent reporters.
  • Allow international reporters open access to the country and end the use of governmental blacklists of journalists considered enemies of the state.   

To the European Union and United States:

  • Maintain current economic sanctions and predicate all future aid and development assistance on a credible democratic transition, including demonstrable progress on press freedom conditions.
  • Maintain funding commitments to exile media groups until press freedom has taken genuine root in Burma and exile editors and journalists are safe to return home without fear of reprisal.  
  • Prioritize the release of all political prisoners, including journalists, as a condition for enhancing diplomatic engagement with the new government.
  • Support the establishment of a United Nations-led Commission of Inquiry into crimes against humanity, including the imprisonment and torture of journalists, in Burma.

To the United Nations:

  • Establish a Commission of Inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity and other crimes under international law committed under Burma’s military regime.
  • Prioritize investigations into press freedom violations, including the jailing and torture of journalists.

To the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN):

  • Predicate Burma’s scheduled assumption of ASEAN’s chairmanship in 2014 on a credible democratic transition, including demonstrable progress on press freedom conditions.
  • Prioritize the release of all political prisoners, including journalists, as a condition for enhancing diplomatic and economic ties with the new government and allowing its representatives greater stature in the regional grouping.

To the Government of Norway:

  • Maintain funding commitments to exile media groups, including the crucial presence allowed in Oslo to the Democratic Voice of Burma, at least until press freedom has taken genuine root in Burma and exiled journalists are safe to return home without fear of reprisal.