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Despite tentative signs that Burma’s media environment is opening up, the criminalisation of independent media is ongoing, and the government remains one of the world’s top jailers of journalists, a recent report warns.
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists had warned prior to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit last week that heaping praise on the President Thein Sein administration was undeserved in light of the continued incarceration of journalists like Sithu Zeya, a young reporter for DVB who is serving an 18-year sentence.
“Sithu’s sentencing underscores the many contradictions between Thein Sein’s recent reform rhetoric and the still harsh on-the-ground reality for Burma’s independent reporters,” its senior Southeast Asia representative, Shawn Crispin, wrote.
“While his civilianized government has talked up the need for more openness and press freedom, his regime still oversees one of the most repressive media environments in the world.”
CPJ lists Burma is having 12 journalists behind bars, although that figure does not include the eight DVB reporters whose name has been withheld by the organisation. Iran leads the table with 42 in detention, followed by Eritrea with 28 and China with 27. The CPJ count places Burma in the fourth spot.
“The message they are trying to give is that journalists can follow news but only up to a certain point, and once that line is crossed, they will be severely punished,” says Toe Zaw Latt, Thailand Bureau Chief for DVB.
He said that the government would have a hard time convincing its critics that it is reforming unless media workers are freed. With several amendments to media laws having been enacted in recent months, the time would ripe to release them, he added.
Crispin warned however that the loosening of draconian restrictions on the media is “easily reversible”, particularly the lifting of a blockade on independent news websites. He said “the concession is at best marginal considering less than 1% of the population has access to the Internet”.
Moreover, it comes at a time when surveillance of internet users has been expanded, “including the installation of closed-circuit cameras, screen-capture programs and keystroke logging software, in public Internet cafes across the country”.
The head of the Rangoon-based Yangon Media Group, Ko Ko, has similar feelings. He believes that although “the situation is much improved”, a lot more needs to be done to ensure a free media. He said a promising sign was that no journalists had yet been arrested by the new government, although Sithu Zeya’s sentence was extended by a decade in September, well into Thein Sein’s tenure as president.