Foreign media barred during polls

Foreign journalists will be barred from entering Burma to cover this year’s controversial elections, the country’s supreme authority for the polls has said.

The declaration will do little to allay concerns about the 7 November vote, which critics have said is aimed at giving the country’s military regime a veneer of legitimacy. The junta-appointed Election Commission (EC) has already said that outside monitors will not be allowed in to observe.

The head of the EC, Thein Soe, told AFP on Monday that “The diplomats are representatives of their countries. So we assume that it’s not necessary to allow other countries to observe separately.”

Vincent Brossel of Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders said reports have conflicted, with rumours circulating that some Bangkok-based journalists would be given visas to enter the country. “If this story is true, it’s just a shame,” he added.

Zin Linn, deputy chairman of the Burma Media Association, said the move showed the polls lacked credibility. Domestic media wanted to provide the Burmese people with accurate coverage of the elections but were unable to do so because of draconian censorship, he added.

Famously, Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was shot dead by a Burmese soldier in Rangoon as he reported on the September 2007 monk-led protests.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Burma 171 out of 175 countries in its 2009 Press Freedom Index. All publications in Burma must be seen by the military-run Press Scrutiny and Registration Division prior to release. Political journals have been allowed to publish the names of candidates standing in the elections but not their policies, said Zin Linn.

The government is in clear violation of the Universal of Declaration of Human Rights, to which Burma is a signatory, Zin Linn added. Article 19 of the UDHR guarantees “freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Article 21 guarantees free and fair elections.

Brossel agreed that Burma’s domestic media was frustrated. “I think a lot of journalists want to be able to report more about the elections and want to investigate and be credible sources of information for the Burmese people, but they face a unique and archaic press censorship board. They are not giving private media and journalists the chance to report freely,” he said.

“You cannot have fair and democratic elections without press freedom. How can a citizen decide on their vote without getting fair and balanced information and access to information such as manifestos? It’s one of the reasons these elections are not serious.”

Thein Soe said in May that the reason for banning outside monitors was because “the nation has a lot of experience with elections. We do not need election watchdogs to come here.”

It is believed some diplomats and UN agency workers already inside Burma may be the only foreigners permitted to observe the polls, Burma’s first in 20 years. The government has also suspended the visa on arrival scheme it introduced in May – a move believed to be aimed at keeping foreigners out of Burma while the polls take place.

Some foreign news agencies have representatives inside Burma, though their staff numbers are small. Regardless, Zin Linn said civilian journalists and democracy activists would continue to report from Burma. “The information will get out of country, that’s for sure,” he said. “The majority of people know this election is a sham. They know about elections, they know about media freedom. They know.”

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