Burma press freedom 'amongst worst'

Just days after Burma’s election commission announced foreign journalists would be denied visas to cover this year’s controversial elections, a Paris-based media watchdog has ranked the country’s media environment one of the five most repressive in the world.

Only Iran, Turkmenistan, North Korea and Eritrea have worse records, according to Reporters Without Borders’ (Reporters sans frontieres – RSF) Press Freedom Index 2010, which was released today. “Freedom is not allowed any space in Burma, where a parliamentary election is due to be held next month, and the rare attempts to provide news or information are met with imprisonment and forced labour,” the report said.

All articles for publication in Burma must be approved by the infamous Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, headed by a military officer. “The military junta have decided that the prior censorship system will be maintained despite the upcoming general elections in November,” the report noted.

The country is one of the few in the world to operate such a system. Zin Linn, deputy chairman of the Burma Media Association, said Burma’s ranking was unsurprising and well deserved. “In Burma there is no press freedom at all,” he said.

Even obituaries are subject to censorship. “If you want to put one of your family members’ obituaries in the newspaper, even that has to pass the censor,” said Zin Linn. Obituaries of political dissidents and their relatives had been refused approval by the board, he added.

Journalists in Burma have received draconian jail sentences for reporting information inconvenient to the regime. In January, DVB reporter Hla Hla Win received a 20-year sentence for violating the Electronic Act, and now faces a total of 27 years in jail; her assistant, Myint Naing, faces seven.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says the act “forbids unauthorised use of electronic media” and is “increasingly used by the regime to punish journalists and activists for sending information out of the country, including over the internet”.

Hla Hla Win was arrested in September 2009 while working on a story related to the anniversary of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, in which Burmese monks launched a mass protest against military rule.

Just weeks later, another DVB broadcast journalist, Ngwe Soe Lin, received a 13-year sentence inside Rangoon’s Insein prison. Today, 17 journalists from DVB alone are imprisoned in Burmese jails. They are joined by other journalists and bloggers who are among an estimated 2,190 political prisoners in Burma.

In the run up to Burma’s first elections in 20 years, set for 7 November, media inside Burma remain deeply frustrated. They have been allowed to print the names of candidates standing in the elections, but almost nothing on the policies of opposition parties.

Observers remain sceptical the situation will change following the polls, which critics claim are a sham designed to ensure continued military rule. This week Burma’s Election Commission chief Thein Soe told diplomats that foreign media would not be allowed into Burma to cover the polls.

The presence of foreigners was unnecessary when foreign news agencies already had Burmese staff in the country, he said. Foreign diplomats would also be able to perform a monitoring role, he added.

Thein Soe had previously announced that foreign election watchdogs would be forbidden from observing the polls. “The nation has a lot of experience with elections. We do not need election watchdogs to come here, he said.”

In RSF’s 2009 Press Freedom Index, Burma was ranked 171 of 175 countries.

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