Burma drops in press freedom index

Oct 20, 2009 (DVB), The sentencing of Burmese journalists and bloggers in September last year has pushed the country another spot lower in an annual press freedom index.

Burma has ranked 171 out of 175 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2009, released today by Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF).

Vincent Brossel, from the RSF Asia desk, told DVB today that there had been no evolution in Burma's media environment over the past year, with journalists still facing similar levels of intimidation, imprisonment and censorship.

"It's quite worrying because we are just one year before the elections and there is no positive improvement," he said. "Apart from the voting system, getting access to media so that people can campaign is the most important thing for us."

He said however that reports published yesterday by DVB that revealed that several interviews with the opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party had been printed in weekly journals inside Burma was "an intriguing development".

Another brief interlude in the restrictions came earlier this year when foreign journalists, along with domestic reporters, were allowed inside the Rangoon prison courtroom where opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was standing trial.

Brossel said however that the coverage inside Burma was ineffective because reporters "were mainly giving the government version" of proceedings.

Burma is subject to draconian censorship regulations, and all printed material is required to pass through the government's Censorship Board before publication.

The public airing of opposition views is a rare occurrence, and can often lead to harassment of both the publisher and the interviewee.

The news followed shortly after Suu Kyi was granted a rare meeting with foreign diplomats, perhaps signaling a shift in policy from a notoriously intransigent government.

The ruling junta appears to have warmed to the idea of dialogue between itself and opposition groups, as well as what could turn out to be unprecedented engagement between itself and the United States following a recent review of US policy to Burma.

Brossel said that a signal of positive change from US engagement would be for the junta to issue foreign journalists with visas "so they don't have to go in like tourists, which is the only way they can now work in Burma".

The four countries that ranked below Burma in the idex were Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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