A media behind bars: press freedom after the cyclone

Francis Wade

May 4, 2009 (DVB), Yesterday, international media watchdogs and analysts were united in their criticism of the deteriorating state of the world's media.

To mark World Press Freedom Day, US-based Freedom House announced that the state of the world's media had declined for a seventh straight year, while Reporters Without Borders (RSF) spoke of press freedom being "taken hostage". And, unsurprisingly, Burma spent the day languishing in the bottom four of nearly every press freedom index and report published, it's sadistic knee-jerk sentencing of dissenters making it, as RSF put it, one of the world's "largest prison[s] for journalists and bloggers."

As if the occasion demanded an accompanying case study, yesterday was also the one-year anniversary of Burma's cyclone Nargis, likely one of the most underreported natural disasters of modern times. That the two occur on the same day is both poignant and ironic. As news of the cyclone began to seep out of the Irrawaddy delta last May, Burmese authorities locked all borders, denying journalists access to affected areas whilst spewing out propaganda about the "over-exaggerated" situation being under control. A week after the cyclone, Burma's leading state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper led with a story on the "despicable" reporting of the cyclone by foreign media, under the title 'The enemy who is more destructive than Nargis'.

So bent was the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) on maintaining it's isolationist tendencies that the plight of 2.4 million affected Burmese was almost silenced, save for the few foreign reporters who managed to stow into the region, and the Burmese 'citizen journalists' who risk life imprisonment to keep international eyes focused on the regime.

Yet the retributions for doing so are astonishing: well-known comedian and activist Maung Thura, known by his stage name Zarganar, was sentenced last November to 59 years (later reduced to 35) after giving interviews critical of the regime's response to Nargis to foreign media, including the BBC. He is serving his sentence in the remote Myitkyina prison near the Burma-China border. Six students were also sentenced last month to between two and four years each under charges of sedition for collecting and burying rotting corpses in the aftermath of the cyclone.

"The attitude of the government [following the cyclone] is in some way directly linked to what happened in the September 2007 protests," said Vincent Brossel, head of the Asia desk at Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based media wachdog.

"They were very afraid of strong images and testimonies about their incapacity to deal with the situation and that's why they banned foreign press from getting visas for the delta."

Reporters Without Borders last year ranked Burma 170 out of 173 countries in their Press Freedom Index, saved only from the "infernal trio" category by the authoritarian regimes of North Korea, Turkmenistan and Eritrea. The report was published amid a wave of sentencing of Burmese journalists and activists following the 2007 monk-led protests and cyclone Nargis.

"The Burmese government never feels comfortable about telling the public the truth," said San Moe Wei, secretary of Thailand-based Burma Media Association.

"As they grow more panicky with the media providing an increased flow of information to the public, they start to put pressure on people who work in the field."

Twenty-eight year old Nay Phone Latt, who recorded footage and tracked the 2007 protests on his blog, is one such victim, charged last November along with Zarganar under the Video Act and Electronics Act and sentenced to 22 years in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison. One former political prisoner there reported the comparatively harsh treatment dished out to political prisoners, including three months spent in solitary confinement, permanently forced to stand with hands tied above the head.

Courts sentenced over 100 journalists and activists that same month following trials that were often held inside closed prison courts, with defence lawyers regularly reporting intimidation. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP), 16 lawyers are now serving prison sentences themselves, among the 2,137 political prisoners being held in Burma.

Of the 6,313 prisoners released in the amnesty in February, only 23 were of this ilk. Accusations circulate that the 'goodwill' move by the government was in fact merely a practical maneuver, freeing up precious prison space for those planning on contesting (or protesting) the elections, tentatively set for next March.

"My concern is that, now with the junta preparing the 2010 elections, they are increasingly using more sophisticated propaganda, with new licenses for new media," said Vincent Brossel.

"At the same time they are keeping very a close eye on independent journalists and people who are related to the opposition who are in the media field. So that's quite scary for what can happen in 2009 and 2010."

Thus, those marking World Press Freedom day next year will once again have to grapple with the shadow cast by the Burmese government. Last November's wave of sentencing proves that work is underway to ensure no destabilising events, whether man-made or natural, take place , indeed, are seen to have taken place – that threaten an extension to the SPDC's rule. Furthermore, with pro-government campaigners now freely airing election propaganda through state television and newspapers, the media has become a powerful weapon to ensure the military retains its grip on power.

'Worst country to be a blogger'

Ironically, prior to the 1962 military coup that heralded the start of a nationalized media industry, Burma had championed free press in Southeast Asia. As many as 35 newspapers existed between 1948 and 1962, and the government kept regular contact with domestic and foreign journalists.

As the junta's rule progressed, however, the clamp was tightened. Now only three print newspapers exist, and all published material has to be verified by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) of the Ministry of Information, who censor out anything deemed critical of the government. Material has to be sent to them a week before publishing date, rendering news archival by the time it is released. Furthermore, the added cost for publishers to print and reprint pages for checking by the PSRD means that many publications tend to self-censor rather than spend money where it can be avoided. As a result, newspapers and journals are thought to lose up to a third of their content prior to publication.

Yet by annexing all media to the government's control, a vacuum for non-state media has been filled by underground bloggers and exile-based media organisations. Life for a blogger in Burma is precarious, however: authorities demand internet café owners take screen shots of their computers every five minutes, which are then copied to CD and sent to government regulators, while intelligence officials closely monitor all email and telephone lines. Just last week, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists published a report labeling Burma the 'worst country to be a blogger', citing the Orwellian system of surveillance the government uses to track and sentence underground journalists.

The other key pillar of non-state media is the exiled news organizations, which both transmit radio and television broadcasts via European satellites into Burma, and allow foreign audiences a window into developments inside the country. Freelance journalist and Burma expert, Larry Jagan, says the government is only too aware of their potential influence.

"What they worry about is that at least 80 per cent of the population is watching or listening or reading stories in Burmese produced by the exiled media," he said.

"They certainly want to know what the Burmese people are being told by them."

And with a population now tuning in to increasingly sophisticated news mediums, the government's concerns will grow.

"No matter how much the government is putting pressure on the people, they will still find a loophole, via television, radio and the internet, to gain access to the information they want," said San Moe Wei.

"I think the role of the outside media and citizen journalists in Burma is reaching its most important level."

The importance of their work will once again be thrown into the spotlight next year, with the 2010 elections providing perhaps the ultimate litmus test to prove how effectively press censorship can cripple democratic reform.

"The press is democracy’s first defense," said Freedom House's executive director Jennifer Windsor, "and its vulnerability has enormous implications for democracy if journalists are not able to carry out their traditional watchdog role."

Thus, if the government remains indifferent to international condemnation of its media environment, and continues to imprison journalists and wield absolute authority over every publication and broadcast, then it is likely the elections will go exactly the way the government intends.

"The international community is making a mistake in trying to make positive the fact that there are elections," said Vincent Brossel.

"Without press freedom, without freedom of expression, without freedom of assembly there is no fair elections. That's obvious."

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