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September 13 2011

21:30

Censorship Prevails in 'New' Burma, Despite Reform Talk

BANGKOK -- A handful of protestors gathered outside the Burmese embassy in Bangkok last Friday to vent their anger against the detention of 17 journalists in Burma, some of whom have been given multiple-decade jail terms for what activists describe as "no more than doing their jobs."

The jailed reporters worked for Democratic Voice of Burma, a Burmese media organization with personnel in Norway and Thailand. Decades of military rule in Burma incorporates vice-like press controls, and though these have been loosened of late, there are questions over whether this apparent liberalization is anything more than rhetorical.

Those questions are highlighted by the case of Hla Hla Win, a 27-year-old DVB reporter sentenced to 27 years in jail for breaching motorbike rules and shooting video. DVB Chief Editor Aye Chaing Naing said, "There is no legal justification to arrest Hla Hla Win, and she should not have been arrested in the first place."

Talk, but no walk on reform

Hla Hla Win and the 16 other DVB reporters are among what the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners -- a Thailand-based organization staffed by ex-political prisoners from Burma -- calculates to be 1,995 political prisoners or prisoners of conscience still in jail in Burma. The Burmese government claims all the country's incarcerated are criminals, including the hundreds of Buddhist monks rounded up after the 2007 Saffron uprising against military rule. The continued detention of almost 2,000 political prisoners highlights what activists believe to be a sham transition from military rule to democracy. Former political prisoner Nyi Nyi Aung, now in the United States, told me that the failure to release the detainees shows the insincerity of the Burmese rulers. "They don't want to make any reform in Burma," he said.

Burma held elections in November 2010, the first since 1990, though the result was a predictable landslide for the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP). When the post-election government was formed, ex-army men made up 26 of the 30 government ministers. Journalists have been given controlled-environment access to the recently convened Parliament, but on the condition that they avoid reporting in a manner damaging to the "dignity of the Parliament and the State."

In another apparent loosening of the press control spigot, an article by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, recounting her recent trip to Bagan -- a temple-laden city in north-central Burma -- was allowed to be published in a Burmese journal called "The People's Era." As ever, there was a caveat. It went to press only after much of the Nobel Peace laureate's submitted content was chopped by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), the official name for the state censor.

Leaked diplomatic cables give startling picture

Unlike some other authoritarian states, Burma has a thriving private-run media and, according to one of a cache of recently leaked U.S. diplomatic cables sent from the country's Rangoon embassy, "the number of weekly newspapers has gone from just a handful 10 years ago to approximately 150 today." That said, most of the growth is in non-controversial areas "like sports and entertainment," lacking what the cable terms "hard news about events in Burma or the outside world."

Covering Suu Kyi has long been a tricky topic for Burmese publications, with the journal Messenger banned from publishing its supplement section for a week by the PSRD. Shiwei Yei is the Southeast Asia point-man for the International Federation for Human Rights. He told me that this is likely to be "related to the journal's recent interview of Suu Kyi and the front-page photo of her."

While bread-and-circus stories about soap operas and sports can, for the most part, now be run without prior vetting by the censors, political stories are subject to word-by-word examination, meaning that critical or investigative coverage of the country's government cannot be undertaken.

According to U.S. embassy officials, writing in a cable sent before Burma's 2010 elections, the censor bans "20-25 percent of all stories in a given periodical." Burma's poorly paid reporters have a pocket incentive to keep within the censor's limits.

"Because Burmese reporters tend to get paid only for the stories that make it into the newspaper, self-censorship is prevalent," according to the same cable. As for the new media regime, some say it merely "encourages more self-censorship as publishers become less certain of what content is acceptable to the authorities," as Amy Sim of London-based Article 19 told me.

Government still promising reform

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Still, the Burmese government is talking the talk on reform. An April 2011 parliamentary speech by President Thein Sein, describing media as the "fourth pillar" of Burmese society, was followed by other apparent liberalizations such as the watering-down -- for now at least -- of clumsy propaganda against foreign media by the much-lampooned New Light of Myanmar. In the past, this Burmese government mouthpiece panned DVB, along with BBC and VOA, with thick-tongued insults such as "killer broadcasts designed to cause troubles."

However, the new president -- who was an army general and prime minister under the pre-election military dictatorship -- tempered his fourth estate spin by giving Burma's MPs the enigmatic yet ominous-sounding missive that they were "required through media to inform the people about what they should know."

A new fish-in-the-barrel target for satirists might be the Burmese information czar, Kyaw Hsan, who followed up a much-derided tearful breakdown at a recent government press conference -- itself a novelty in Burma -- by describing media as "red ants" in a parliamentary debate on Sept. 7, held in Burma's purpose-built but isolated administrative capital Naypyidaw. To some, Kyaw Hsan's speech means little more than the same old restrictions garnished with some unintentionally entertaining rhetoric. "He thinks that the country is not ready for press freedom," said Zin Linn, of the Thailand-based Burma Media Association.

In his eyebrow-raising and quixotic response to a much-needed and overdue parliamentary proposal on press freedom, the minister of information said it would bring "more disadvantages than advantages," before launching into a half-hour speech which quoted from the ancient "550 Jataka Tales" and its fable of the elephant king Saddan. In the tale, the king offered flowers (press freedom) to his queen, but the flowers attracted red ants (journalists), which bit the queen.

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

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June 03 2010

16:27

Crisis in Thailand Leads to Net Crackdown, Censorship

At least 80 people were killed during the latest clashes in Thailand. But the confusion and danger that are present in various parts of Bangkok do not explain why several Thai and foreign journalists have been shot since April. Two are dead. The tense political situation also doesn't justify the leadership's blocking of more than 4,000 anti-monarchy websites.

As we at Reporters Without Borders recently stated in regards to the Thai government's actions, "The right to information is more important than ever when a country is in crisis." Yet several reporters have been gunned down and the Internet is falling prey to censorship. So far, around 4,500 websites have been blocked in an attempt by the regime to institute partial censorship of news about the nine-week crisis. Former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's Twitter account has also been blocked since May 19.

On that same day, the leadership's Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation (CRES) blocked Facebook and Twitter, which had been functioning as alternative sources of news after TV stations began broadcasting government-controlled programming. Also that day, the Bangkok headquarters of Channel 3 was set on fire by anti-government protesters, and the two biggest English-speaking dailies, the Bangkok Post and the Nation, sent their employees home at 3 p.m. due to fears that their offices could be attacked by Red Shirts. At this point, almost all local journalists avoid going into the streets to cover the situation because of concerns about the risks.

Gathering Info in a Tough Environment

Journalists have been gathering information via social networks, the telephone, and from people trapped in the Wat Pathum Wanaram temple. (It adjoins the square where the Red Shirt protestors had gathered.) Only a few foreign reporters are still on the ground. Here is a video interview with Italian photo-journalist Fabio Polenghi in which he explains the varying treatment of local and foreign reporters:

Sadly, Polenghi died on May 19 during the army's assault on the Red Shirts in Bangkok.

As of today, two reporters have been killed and several injured since mid-March. In testimonies obtained by Reporters Without Borders, foreign journalists also reported feeling targeted. Arnaud Dubus, a reporter for the French daily Libération and for Radio France Internationale, told us, "This is the first time in Thailand that I feel that foreign journalists are really targeted."

The Geneva Convention forbids journalists from being military targets. Thailand was elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council on May 15, and now it is violating humanitarian and international law principles.

Online Crackdown Goes On

Blocking Twitter and Facebook is nothing new for Thai authorities. Since at least 2009, this has been a regular practice among the Thai police. So far, one blogger, Suwicha Thakor, has been jailed for his online activities. In April of last year, he was given a 10-year jail sentence by a criminal court in the northeast Bangkok district of Ratchada. This was for posting content online that was deemed to have insulted the monarchy. Thakor has been held in Bangkok's Klong Prem prison since January 14.

One challenge is that the Internet is not well regulated in Thailand. The country's Computer Crimes Act, which was adopted in 2007, is too vague. That means the ongoing trial of Chiranuch Premchaiporn, the editor of the Prachatai news website, could create a legal precedent. She is facing up to 50 years in prison for failing to act with sufficient speed to remove "offensive" comments about the monarchy that were posted on the site.

Arrested on March 31, Chiranuch was released after three hours when her sister guaranteed the 300,000 bahts (6,000 euros) in bail demanded by the judicial authorities.

"In normal times I would be more confident about this initial hearing," she told Reporters Without Borders. "I hope the court will make allowance."

Under the Computer Crimes Act, owners and editors of websites can be prosecuted when they publish comments that are deemed to have broken the law. The owners are regarded as being as responsible as the commenters themselves.

Chiranuch's website, as well as its Facebook page and Twitter account, has repeatedly been blocked by the Centre for Resolution of the Emergency Situation since the start of Thailand's political crisis. The Prachatai news website was founded in 2004 -- when the now deposed Thaksin Shinawatra was still prime minister -- with the aim of being an alternative source of news. Its news section receives more than 20,000 visitors a day, while its forum receives about 30,000.

The harassment of netizens is widely spread and does not stop at Thai borders. In 2006, Anthony Chai, an American citizen from California, was interrogated by Thai officials in Thailand and again later in the U.S. for allegedly insulting the monarchy in 2006. Originally from Thailand, Chai was granted U.S. citizenship in the late 1970s. He faces possible arrest if he returns to Thailand. "What if now the U.S. is allowing a U.S. citizen to be interrogated by foreign agents on U.S. soil?" he said. You can read more about Chai's case here.

(For more on Thailand and other countries' "lese majeste" laws against insulting the monarchy, see this previous story on MediaShift.)

Clothilde Le Coz has been working for Reporters Without Borders in Paris since 2007. She is now the Washington director for this organization, helping to promote press freedom and free speech around the world. In Paris, she was in charge of the Internet Freedom desk and worked especially on China, Iran, Egypt and Thailand. During the time she spent in Paris, she was also updating the "Handbook for Bloggers and Cyberdissidents," published in 2005. Her role is now to get the message out for readers and politicians to be aware of the constant threat journalists are submitted to in many countries.

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May 21 2010

15:31

International journalists in Thailand spread word in the face of violence

First-hand accounts and Twitter updates from journalists on the ground in Thailand this week have given an insight into the level of violence faced by citizens and journalists reporting ongoing clashes between the red-shirt anti-government protestors and the Thai military.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least eight journalists have been shot, two fatally, while covering the unrest in Bangkok. Freelance Italian photojournalist Fabio Polenghi was killed on Wednesday – another casualty following the death of Reuters cameraman Hiro Muramoto on 10 April.

Those journalists reported to have been injured include Dutch freelancer Michael Maas; the Independent’s Andrew Buncombe, and freelance Canadian writer and photographer, Chandler Vandergrift.

“Covering civil unrest in Thailand is always dangerous, but for months, neither side in the political turmoil has been willing to address ways of allowing journalists to do their jobs without fear of being killed or injured,” says Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia programme coordinator, on the group’s website.

Buncombe, who was shot in the leg while covering violence at a Buddhist temple, tweeted eyewitness reports from the scene providing a harrowing yet fascinating narrative of his experience, which he has also covered in a piece for the Independent:

The injured were removed, with priority given to those most badly hurt.

The first to leave was the man shot in the lower back. Next was a man shot in the leg. As he was lifted on the stretcher and carried towards the ambulances, he moaned and cried. He pressed his palms together as if to say a prayer, perhaps both for himself and his country.

A man who had been shot in the thigh and I were taken out in the final two ambulances. That man’s name was Narongsak Singmae, he was 49 and from the north-east of the country. As he lay waiting to be taken away to hospital, he said: “I cannot believe they are shooting in a temple.”

Tweets and images from fellow journalist MacKinnon, East Asia correspondent for Canada’s national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, (who managed to sneak a cold beer into @andrewbuncombe while he was in hospital according to this tweet) have been pulled into a transcript by the Globe and Mail, creating a vivid account of the Thai government’s crackdown on protestors.

The Vancouver Sun has a moving account of photojournalist Nelson Rand who was hit by three bullets while covering the violence but survived; and another Canadian journalist, Vandergrift, who was seriously injured in clashes between Red Shirt protestors and Thai soldiers. A producer with CBC News, Cedric Monteiro, describes the moment he realised Vandergrift was injured:

There was more yelling down the road, from more soldiers running with stretchers. As the first one went by I recognized Vandergrift on it. He was motionless, his head bandaged, his shoulder bleeding. Someone was shouting at him: “Chandler stay awake.”

According to reports, he was struck by shrapnel from a grenade that also tore through the arm of a Thai soldier. Tonight Vandergrift lies in hospital in serious condition, fighting for his life. The sadness of the moment lies even heavier because I knew him. He is among four journalists who were injured today. Another was killed – an Italian photographer.

As I try to fathom why so many scribes race with such intensity and abandon to cover conflict, I’m reminded by what my journalism professor once said: “There is no story in the world worth dying for.”

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