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August 20 2012

15:57

August 15 2012

14:00

In Burma, a Delicate Balance for New Freedoms of Speech

BANGALORE -- The weekend before last, black-clad Burmese journalists took to the streets of main city Rangoon to rail against the suspension of two local newspapers by the country's censorship board.

An estimated 300 protesters wore black T-shirts with the logo "Stop Killing the Press" after The Voice Weekly and The Envoy were suspended for not submitting stories for pre-publication scrutiny, a legacy of the bad old days of arbitrary rule that government has said will soon be history.

The Voice Weekly was curbed due to an article about a rumored cabinet reshuffle which it published without the censor's go-ahead. "It seems the censor board is flexing its muscles to remind everyone they are still there," said Sein Win, editor of Mizzima, another newspaper.

The protest and other related developments show how finely-balanced emerging press and speech freedoms are in Burma. In a sense, that the protest was allowed to take place at all shows that Burma's reforms are giving people at least more leeway to publicly voice their opinions, and notably, the suspension has since been lifted, in response to the protestors.

But then, on August 10, another reminder that old regime ways die hard: The government announced a new press council, to be staffed by officials, rather than journalists. This means the council will be a government entity rather than a self-regulating media body as is often the case with press councils in other countries.

Elsewhere, new-found freedoms have allowed old tensions between some of Burma's dozens of ethnic and religious groups come to the fore.

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK

Before a civilian government took office in March 2011, replacing the former military rulers, there was no chance such a protest would take place -- or if it did the demonstrators would have been arrested, put through a show trial, and possibly given lengthy, trumped-up jail terms.

The government is civilian in name only as it is made up of mostly former army cadres and backed by various legislatures featuring almost 80 percent army or army-backed lawmakers.

Nonetheless, the government has made numerous changes over the past year, such as freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing free and fair by-elections on April 1, during which famous opposition leader Ang San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat. Last week, the government even funded commemorations of the August 1988 student protests against the then-government, demonstrations which resulted in the army killing an estimated 3,000 civilians.

Prior to the recent, mostly informal relaxation of media freedom, the newspapers in question could not have ran anything critical of the government or even published something as seemingly innocuous as a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi.

CHANGES STILL NEEDED

But the latest suspensions are a reminder that the Burmese government can still apply the letter of the law if it so chooses and that draconian laws curbing freedom of expression remain on the books.

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said, "We are also concerned that even if the media law includes liberal provisions, they will be trumped by the various other draconian laws on the books, including the Electronics Act, that have historically been used to threaten and jail journalists." 

With press freedom curtailed in Burma in the past, many journalists fled abroad, running news agencies from Thailand or India. One, Kheunsai Jaiyen, heads the Shan Herald agency, focusing on affairs in Shan state, a narcotics-producing region of Burma bordering northern Thailand.

mizzima.png

"For years we had to operate inside Shan state incognito," he recalls. "Now it is easier since the regime makes a show of opening up."

Some of Burma's exiled press -- such as Mizzima -- have opened offices in Burma in recent months, while others are mulling whether to establish a presence at home, pending finalization of the new press law, which will see the end of the government censors, according to the government itself. Kheunsai Jaiyen said, "We have yet to decide whether we will register officially in Burma."

NEW FREEDOMS, NEW CLASHES

In June, deadly riots between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslims, mostly Rohingya, took place in Arakan in the west of Burma.

Many Arakanese and other Burmese regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, calling them "Bengalis" and worse. State-run media published the word "kalar" to describe the Rohingya, something akin to a U.S. newspaper using the word "nigger" in a news report.

"Illegal Migrants Bangali/Rohingya People are Never and Forever cannot count in Eyhnic People of Burma Nation, ever they are legal or illegal" ran one such comment, posted anonymously under a news article about the issue in The Irrawaddy, a Burmese news magazine run from northern Thailand.

With Internet access in Burma slowly expanding and -- for those who can afford it or put up with glacial download speeds -- access to the likes of Facebook and Twitter no longer blocked, freedom to say what's on one's mind has taken a nasty turn.

Burmese at home and among the millions of diaspora scattered across southeast Asia, Europe and North America have taken to issuing diatribes about the Rohingya, with even former political prisoners under the old military junta taking to praising the current government and using ominous sounding nationalist and security justifications for supporting clamping down on what many describe as "so-called Rohingya."

In the meantime, the Rohingya issue has attracted the attention of Muslims overseas, including militants such as the Pakistani Taliban and Abu Bakr Basyir, currently in jail in Indonesia for funding terrorism. Online, doctored photos purporting to support unverified claims of a "genocide" of Rohingya have appeared and Rohingya or foreign backers have fired out some splenetic pages and posts in turn.

"There are weaknesses in both domestic and foreign reporting. Most of the local news coverage is emotional, with a strong sentiment of patriotism," Sein Win said, hinting at the need for greater responsibility and balance in Burma's partly free press.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the The Irrawaddy, Christian Science Monitor and others. He is on twitter @simonroughneen and you can Circle him on Google+.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

August 10 2012

12:15

In Burma, A Delicate Balance for New Freedoms of Speech

BANGKOK - The weekend before last, black-clad Burmese journalists took to the streets of main city Rangoon to rail against the suspension of two local newspapers by the country's censorship board.

An estimated 300 protesters wore black T-shirts with the logo "Stop Killing the Press" after The Voice Weekly and The Envoy were suspended for not submitting stories for pre-publication scrutiny, a legacy of the bad old days of arbitrary rule that government has said will soon be permanently history.

The Voice Weekly was curbed due to an article about a rumored cabinet reshuffle which it published without the censor's go-ahead. "It seems the censor board is flexing its muscles to remind everyone they are still there," said Sein Win, editor of Mizzima, another newspaper.

The protest showcases how delicate emerging press and speech freedoms are in Burma. In a sense, that the protest was allowed to take place at all shows that Burma's reforms are giving people at least more leeway to publicly voice their opinions, and notably, the suspension was since lifted, in response to the protestors.

But then, on an August 10, another signal of the old regime: Government announced a new press council, but to much disappointment that the new body manned by officials, rather than journalists, meaning the council will be government entity rather than a self-regulating media body is is often the case with press councils elsewhere.

And, the new-found freedoms come with their own set of problems as tensions between some of Burma's dozens of ethnic and religious groups come to the fore.

TWO STEPS FORWARD, ONE STEP BACK

Before a "civilian" government took office in March 2011, replacing the former military rulers, there was no chance such a protest would take place - or if it did the demonstrators would have been arrested, put through a show trial and possibly given lengthy, trumped-up jail terms.

The government is civilian in name only as it is made up of mostly former army cadres and backed by legislatures featuring almost 80 percent army or army-backed lawmakers.

Nonetheless the government has made numerous changes over the past year, such as freeing hundreds of political prisoners and allowing free and fair by-elections on April 1 last, in which famous opposition leader Ang San Suu Kyi won a parliamentary seat. Last week, the government even funded commemorations of the August 1988 student protests against the then-government, which resulted in the army killing an estimated 3000 civilians.

Prior to a recent, mostly-informal relaxation of media freedom, the newspapers in question could not have ran anything critical of the government or even published something as seemingly innocuous as a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi.

CHANGES STILL NEEDED

But the latest suspensions are a reminder that the Burmese government can still apply the letter of the law if it so chooses and that draconian laws curbing freedom of expression remain on the books.

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists said, "We are also concerned that even if the media law includes liberal provisions, they will be trumped by the various other draconian laws on the books, including the Electronics Act, that have historically been used to threaten and jail journalists." 

With press freedom curtailed in Burma in the past, many journalists fled abroad, running news agencies from Thailand or India. One, Kheunsai Jaiyen, heads the "Shan Herald": http://www.english.panglong.org/ agency, focusing on affairs in Shan state, a narcotics-producing region of Burma bordering northern Thailand.

mizzima.png

"For years we had to operate inside Shan state incognito," he recalls. "Now it is easier since the regime makes a show of opening up."

Some of Burma's exiled press - such as Mizzima - have opened offices in Burma in recent months, while others are mulling whether to establish a presence at home, pending finalization of the new press law, which will see the end of the government censors, according to the government itself. Kheunsai Jaiyen said "We have yet to decide whether we will register officially in Burma."

NEW FREEDOMS, NEW CLASHES

In June, deadly riots between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslims, mostly Rohingya, took place in Arakan in the west of Burma.

Many Arakanese and other Burmese regard the Rohingya as illegal immigrant from Bangladesh, calling them "Bengalis" and worse. State-run media published the word "kalar' to describe the Rohingya, something akin to a US newspaper using the word "nigger" in a news report.

"Illegal Migrants Bangali/Rohingya People are Never and Forever cannot count in Eyhnic People of Burma Nation, ever they are legl or illegal" ran one such comment, posted anonymously under a news article about the issue in The Irrawaddy, a Burmese news magazine run from northern Thailand.

With internet access in Burma slowly expanding and, for those can afford it or put up with glacial download speeds, access to the likes of Facebook and Twitter no longer blocked, freedom to say what's on one's mind has taken a nasty turn.

Burmese at home and among the millions of diaspora scattered across southeast Asia, Europe and north America have taken to issuing diatribes about the Rohingya, with even former political prisoners under the old military junta taking to praising the current government and using ominous sounding nationalist and security justifications for supporting clamping down on what many describe as "so-called Rohingya".

In the meantime, the Rohingya issue has attracted the attention of Muslims overseas, including militants such as the Pakistani Taliban and Abu Bakr Basyir , currently in jail in Indonesia for funding terrorism. Online, doctored photos purporting to support unverified claims of a "genocide" of Rohingya have appeared and Rohingya or foreign backers have fired out some splenetic pages and posts in turn.

"There are weaknesses in both domestic and foreign reporting. Most of the local news coverage is emotional, with a strong sentiment of patriotism," Sein Win said, hinting at the need for greater responsibility and balance in Burma's partly-free press.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the The Irrawaddy, Christian Science Monitor and others. He is on twitter @simonroughneen and you can Circle him on Google+.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

March 29 2012

14:00

Cautious Hope for Freedom of Information in Burma

BANGKOK -- A week out from special elections that are likely to see opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi take a seat in the country's parliament, Burma's long-straitjacketed journalists sat with local and foreign officials to discuss a new press law that could see the country's censorship regime abolished.

Thiha Saw, editor of Myanmar Dhana magazine and Open News (two Rangoon-based publications), told an audience in Bangkok earlier this week that, according to the Ministry of Information, the censorship department will be abolished and there will no longer be pre-publication checking of articles.

Right now in Burma, daily newspapers are banned and existing weeklies must run their content by the censorship board for approval before publishing.

But change is nigh, it seems, and a second draft of a new print media law will go before the country's parliament later this year. By then, the parliament could include Aung San Suu Kyi, the famous dissident who was denied her win in 1990 elections and spent much of the intervening years under house arrest.

That possibility is heartening for journalists.

"Hopefully the Lady will be in parliament by the time the second draft comes around," Thiha Saw said.

A new playing field

The special elections and the proposed new press code are the latest in a series of reforms enacted or proposed by the country's nominally civilian government -- changes that have seen a bevy of media headlines lauding the country's rulers for their new-found open-mindedness.

Political prisoners have been freed, new laws on foreign investment proposed, and controversial, lucrative infrastructure projects have been put on hold. The year-old parliament also recently passed bills on environmental conservation and agreed on the country's annual budget -- which was previously announced by decree.

While I was reporting from Burma in February, ordinary Burmese -- as well politicians, media workers, political activists -- were all happy to be interviewed in public. This was not the case just a few months before.

Facebook is no longer blocked, and though the Internet remains slow and expensive -- as well as monitored by the government -- smaller publications yet to develop a website are using Facebook pages to post news content online, with images and video of Aung San Suu Kyi's election campaign proving wildly popular.

However, after five decades of military rule, army influence over the country's government is not about to fade away. Speaking on March 27, Army head Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said soldiers who serve as lawmakers are working for "the interest of the country ... performing the duty of national politics" by participating in parliament, where the military is allotted 25 percent of the seats.

a hint of reform

That said, there have been some surprising developments in the parliament, with members of parliament disagreeing with ministers and officials, and the tiny opposition finding common ground with some members of the army-backed majority party.

And in a signal that Burma's rulers are loosening their information grip, reporters from Rangoon -- such as Thiha Saw -- were permitted to travel to Bangkok on March 26, to discuss media reform and the April 1 elections.

In recent times, Thailand has served as a sanctuary for some of Burma's dissident and opposition figures, as well as leaders of some of the country's ethnic minority militias. Hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing fighting in Burma's rugged borderlands come to Thailand, as well as several million Burmese economic migrants escaping poverty and joblessness at home, to eke out a sometimes harsh living in Thailand's fishing industry or as domestic service.

Among the Thailand-based Burmese are the exiled media outlets, which have worked to fill the news void inside Burma in the years since the army crushed student protests in 1988.

irrwaddy.png

Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy, an online news magazine based in Chiang Mai, close to the Thailand-Burma border, and Toe Zaw Latt, Thailand bureau chief of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), joined their Burma-based counterparts for this week's discussion, held at Thailand's Foreign Correspondents Club.

Both Aung Zaw and Toe Zaw Latt had just returned to Thailand from Burma, where they attended an international conference -- backed by the Burmese government -- on media development in the country, which is officially known as Myanmar.

It was Toe Zaw Latt's first visit home in 23 years, and for Aung Zaw, his second in 24 years. Both men fled their country after the 1988 uprising, which marked Aung San Suu Kyi's first foray into Burmese politics.

old ways are hard to bury

Aung Zaw said his publication will consider establishing operations inside Burma, pending more reforms, but cautioned that he hopes to have a "one foot in, one foot out" strategy going forward.

Somewhat pessimistic about a new era of media freedom emerging in Burma, he said, "The government will give licenses (for media) to cronies, those who are rich, former military men who have business links. Any of these rich people could swallow The Irrawaddy."

The new print media law does not cover online reporting -- and it remains to be seen whether television and radio laws will be given the same overhaul. Toe Zaw Latt said that many of the old laws that made Burma one of the world's harshest places to be a journalist remained in place.

"The Electronics Act is still there," he said, referring to a law that means Burmese can be jailed for 20 years for publishing material deemed subversive. Up until January 13, when Burma's government released several hundred political prisoners, 17 DVB reporters were imprisoned under the Electronics Act.

Despite the existence of oppressive laws, both the Burmese government and international backers of media reform still portray Burma's journalists as the ones needing to change their ways.

A press statement released by UNESCO after the recent media development conference in Burma attributed the following summary to U Ye Htut, director-general of the Information and Public Relations Department, at Burma's Ministry of Information.

"U Ye Htut also identified the main challenges in lack of experience, lack of professional standards in journalism in Myanmar and limited access to local media, and need to imbue press, publishers and editors with a concept of self-responsibility," read the release.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for the Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, Christian Science Monitor and others. He is on twitter @simonroughneen and you can Circle him on Google+.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

May 10 2011

16:58

Burmese Media Launch Campaign to Free Jailed Reporters

Hla Hla Win, Sithu Zeya, Maung Maung Zeyu, Ngwe Soe Lin and Win Maw are all undercover reporters in Burma, and all are serving jail sentences ranging from eight to 27 years after being caught in one of the world's most draconian media dragnets.

Hla-Hla-Win.jpg

To coincide with World Press Freedom Day last week on May 3, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) launched a campaign to have its jailed journalists freed.

According to the Burmese government and its supporters, a slow transition from authoritarian rule has begun. But DVB argues that if this is the case, journalists should not be jailed for merely doing their job, and is calling on Burmese authorities to release the detainees, as well as asking foreign governments to try to influence or pressure the regime. Visitors to the campaign website can add their name to a petition calling for the reporters' release.

Officially, the Burmese government does not recognize the existence of political prisoners, saying that all those incarcerated in Burmese prisons are criminals. The United Nations says there are about 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, 17 of which are DVB journalists. DVB is naming only five of them for security reasons, but is campaigning to have all of the reporters freed.

Second Most Jailed Journalists

Burma holds the second-highest number of jailed journalists of any country in the world per capita, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

"We are seen as enemies of the state," said Moe Zaw Latt, a DVB editor based in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, who opened the Free VJ (video journalists) campaign in Bangkok.

Sithu_Zeya.jpg

DVB was set up in 1992 by exiled dissidents and opposition politicians to make up for the news and information gap inside Burma, where media is either state-operated or has to first clear stories with the army's censors. Foreign journalists are usually not allowed to work in Burma.

Besides DVB, other external Burmese news agencies include Mizzima and The Irrawaddy. (Note: I am a regular contributor to Irrawady.) Unable to sell in their natural marketplace inside Burma, these agencies are partially supported by donor governments and private philanthropies as a means to ensure there is some uncensored Burmese news.

Undercover reporters are crucial to this effort and, in DVB's case, supplied much of the internationally viewed footage from the 2007 "Saffron Revolution," when monks and civilians took to the streets all over Burma in protest, first against rising prices, and later against military rule, before a savage army crackdown and widespread arrests of protestors.

The Perils of Undercover Journalism

I attended DVB's campaign event and press conference in Bangkok, where I met Aung Htun, a DVB undercover journalist. "Aung Htun" is actually his pseudonym, as he is fearful of retribution against his family back in Burma. He had a narrow escape from the Burmese police while filming the 2007 protests.

"I heard that some of the 88 students were gathering in Rangoon (Burma), that there would be a demonstration," he told me. "I arrived late, though, and the demonstration was over."

With military intelligence and informers likely still keeping an eye on the location, Aung Htun quickly realized that his presence there would draw attention, even though his camera was hidden and there was no overt indication of his hidden profession.

"I was soon stopped by plainclothes guys, who asked me why I was walking around this street," he said. He was promptly taken to a nearby government office, and questioning began.

"Who are you? What are you doing here today? Where do you live?"

Moved to City Hall

As a crowd gathered outside, apparently in reaction to word getting out that someone had been taken for questioning to the building, the officials decided to move Aung Htun to Rangoon's City Hall.

"They did not want provoke another gathering or demonstration," he said. By that stage, they found his videocamera, hidden in a backpack, and at City Hall they asked him if he was a journalist. He replied no, and when they asked him to show them what he had recorded, he said he had nothing, even as he realized that they did not know how to operate the camera.

"I ran the camera on shooting mode," he said. It was a simple ruse, but enough to convince them that he had not recorded any demonstrations.

Most likely, Aung Htun was let go as a ploy by authorities hoping that he would lead them to other DVB reporters and expose a wider network of clandestine Burmese journalists.

"I was one of the lucky ones," he said.

An Imprisoned 'Fourth Estate'

In his inaugural address, Burma's new president, Thein Sein, referred to the media as the "fourth estate." However, the speech came just after Maung Muang Zeyu -- one of the five DVB reporters highlighted in the campaign, was sentenced to 13 years in jail.

David Mathieson, Burma expert at Human Rights Watch, is skeptical that the fourth estate reference means any relaxation of Burma's notorious media restrictions.

"Mendacity is the main aspect of the message in Burma these days," he said at the DVB campaign launch. "The Burmese authorities have come up with 'a military-parliamentary complex' to fashion an image that some reform is taking place, when in reality they are just making small, token concessions here and there."

Burma held elections for the first time in two decades last November, which resulted in the military and its allied civilian party holding 83 percent of all seats in the new parliament. All but four of the new government ministers are from the army. Nonetheless, the "new" government, headed by a president who was a general and prime minister under the "old" junta, is trying to sell itself as a reformed and reformist entity.

After decades of economic decline at home, ordinary Burmese are among the poorest people in Asia. Between 3 million to 5 million Burmese now live in Thailand, working menial jobs, and hundreds of thousands more have migrated elsewhere in the region. Tens of thousands of others have been resettled in the United States and other Western countries, part of a program for refugees fleeing political oppression in Burma.


Showing that official restrictions are likely to continue behind a reformist facade, the new government has already banned Skype and other forms of Internet telephony, which have been growing in popularity due to the high cost of mobile telephone use and overseas calls in Burma.

Low Net Penetration

freedom house logo.jpg

Internet use is low in Burma, and the government controls the country's Internet service providers (ISPs), meaning that a new media-driven protest movement, along the lines of Tunisia or Egypt, is unlikely to emerge in Burma right now. Freedom House ranks Burma the second-worst country in the world for oppression of Internet freedom, and estimates that only 1 percent of the country's population has access to the web.

Undercover reporting will therefore remain crucial to getting news about Burma to the outside world.

If Burma's rulers are really moving toward reform and a freer media environment, undercover reporting will not be necessary, and journalists will not face decades in jail for reporting the news. With that in mind, DVB is appealing to the new government to live up to the lip service it is making to democratization, by freeing the journalists.

"A democracy does not keep reporters in jail," Toe Zaw Linn said at the campaign launch.

However, the Burmese government has a poor track record of responding positively to international lobbying on political or human rights issues.

Launching a high-profile campaign can help, at least based on precedent elsewhere.

Marwaan Macaan Markar, a Sri Lankan correspondent for Inter-Press News, said the assistance of groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders was crucial in helping threatened journalists in his own country flee abroad, and to raise awareness about cases when reporters were jailed or tortured.

"It is always a difficult decision on whether or not to go public or international in these cases," he said. "It can really antagonize the government concerned."

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

February 04 2010

09:00

WAN: Newspaper industry body calls for release of Burmese journalists

The World Association of Newspapers (WAN) has written to Burma’s military junta asking for the release of two Burmese journalists and an end to the repression of journalists working in the country.

According to reports, journalist Ngwe Soe Lin was sentenced to 13 years in prison on 28 January after sending reports to the Norwegian-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Lin’s sentencing follows the 20-year punishment handed out to journalist Hla Hla Win late last year.

Full story and letter sent to the Junta at this link…

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February 03 2010

10:17

Burma VJ film nominated for ‘Best Documentary’ Oscar

CNNGo.com reports that ‘Burma VJ’ is among the nominations for best documentary in this year’s Oscars.

Recently featured on Channel 4, Anders Østergaard’s film documented young video journalists during the 2007 uprisings led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar. From the Channel 4 website:

Armed with small handycams, the Burma VJs stop at nothing to make their reportages; their material is smuggled out of the country and broadcast back into Burma via satellite and offered as free usage for international media.

The whole world has witnessed single event clips made by the VJs, but for the very first time, their individual images have been put together with Østergaard’s sparingly-used reconstruction to tell a riveting story which offers a unique insight into high-risk journalism and dissidence in a police state, while at the same time providing a thorough documentation of the historical and dramatic days of September 2007, when the Buddhist monks started marching.

Other Oscar ‘Best Documentary’ nominations include ‘The Cove’; ‘Food, Inc,’ ‘Which Way Home’ and ‘The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers.’


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