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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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December 01 2010

18:35

Suu Kyi Set Free But Media Still Held Captive in Burma

Burma has in recent weeks been one of the top world news stories. The country's November 7 general election was followed less than a week later by the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the world's best-known political dissidents, whose appearance at her front gate on Saturday, November 13, was carried on news networks around the world.

However, getting news out of Burma is no easy task. As detailed by MediaShift contributor Clothilde Le Coz, foreign journalists were banned from entering the country to cover the elections. Though an estimated 30 to 40 managed to sneak in on tourist visas, seven were deported after being detained by the police. Fourteen media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. There are a total of around 2,200 political prisoners who remain locked up, despite the release of Suu Kyi.

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Still, high-profile reporters such as BBC's John Simpson managed to interview Suu Kyi after her release, with no apparent retaliation or punitive measures by the ruling junta. One reporter in Rangoon, who asked to remain anonymous due to the restrictions on foreign journalists operating in Burma, told me the apparent indifference to the journalists-posing-as-tourists was more due to ineptitude on the part of the police, rather than newfound tolerance.

Telecom Backwater

Chinese correspondents are the only foreign press permitted to work in Burma on a full-time basis; news agencies and wire services such as Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse are only allowed to deploy Burmese stringers.

The information challenge was heightened in the week before the November 7 election, when a moratorium on new SIM cards was imposed by the junta, pushing the price of black market SIMs to well over $1,000. Economics are another form of censorship in Burma, as the average wage is a little over $200 per year. Even if the release of Suu Kyi somehow galvanized the public into another confrontation with the junta, there is little prospect of seeing the SMS-organized mass protests that emerged a decade ago elsewhere in southeast Asia, such as when tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Manila to demand the ouster of President Joseph Estrada.

All told, only four percent of the population are wired up to telephone networks, one of the world's lowest telephone usage rates. There are rumors that various multinational telecommunications companies are seeking ways into the market, and trying to get around U.S., E.U. and Australian sanctions by setting up shell companies in Singapore and Hong Kong. However, the privatization of various state assets's-economy-and-investment-175390 over the past year appears to have only benefited a narrow cabal of Burmese businessmen affiliated to the ruling junta. There are 1.3 million mobile phones and 866,084 landlines in Burma, according to statistics released by Myanmar Post and Telecommunications. The country has a population of roughly 50 million people. In contrast, over half the population of neighboring Thailand has mobile phones.

The country has been deemed "an enemy of the Internet" by Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF), and Vincent Brossell, RSF's Asia representative, told me that "it is so risky to try to work with people inside Burma."

When it comes to the Internet, foreign news and social networking sites are blocked, though tech-savvy Internet users and Internet cafe owners in Rangoon and Mandalay can find ways around the wall using various proxies. However, just one in 455 Burmese were Internet users in 2009, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Internet cafes in Rangoon and Mandalay charge around $0.40 an hour for access, which is far too expensive for ordinary Burmese.

Enhanced Online Surveillance

A new ISP regime is being implemented by the ruling State Peace and Development Council, the official title for the junta. The planned "national web portal" will split the military, government and general ISPs into separate services, meaning that the publicly available Internet can be closed down or slowed without impinging on the government or army's web access. Critics say the new plan will enhance surveillance and online snooping, and make the country's few bloggers more vulnerable than ever to arrest.

During the monk-led mass protests in September 2007, citizens used the web to send reports and video to the outside world, circumventing the ban on foreign media. Blogger Nay Phone Latt was a central figure in that effort, but he was given a 12 year jail term for his efforts -- a harsh reminder of what happens to those who use the Internet to speak out against the ruling junta.

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Any hope that the release of Suu Kyi signals even a tentative loosening-up appear to be misplaced. The military censors have stuck to the old ways, as evidenced by the fact that only ten of the country's 100-plus privately owned publications were sanctioned to offer coverage of the release of Suu Kyi. All publications in Burma must have their content approved in advance by the Press Scrutiny Board. Speaking at a seminar on post-election Burma in Bangkok on November 23, Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a news magazine based in Thailand but run by Burmese journalists, told me that "media in Burma are trying to push the envelope with the censor, since the release of Aung San Suu Kyi."

Shawn Crispin, southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told me there is a "yawning news gap" caused by heavy censorship and intimidation inside Burma. Burmese exiles try to fill the void, operating mainly from India and Thailand. Clandestine reporters inside the country take great risks to funnel information to editors in Chiang Mai, New Delhi and beyond.

Late in 2009, Hla Hla Win, a reporter for the Norway-headquartered Democratic Voice of Burma, was sentenced to a total of 27 years in jail for violating the Electronics Act, another draconian lever used by the junta to stop information from getting around the country or to the outside.

First Eleven's Cover

However, since the release of Suu Kyi, even the state-watched media in Burma have shown daring creativity to get their message out, risking the wrath of the regime in the process. Sports journal First Eleven led with a front-page story on the Tuesday after Suu Kyi's release that was a combination of headlines ostensibly about English Premier League soccer matches, but that also used colored lettering to discuss Suu Kyi's release. Three innocuous-looking headlines -- "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope" -- read as "Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope."

First Eleven got the ruse past the censors by submitting the advance copy of the page in black and white, but were subsequently hit with a two week publishing ban after the military realized that they had been fooled.

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist currently in southeast Asia. He writes for Financial Times, 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.

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November 11 2010

16:31

Burma Elections Include Throttled Net, Blocked News Sites

Japanese journalist Toru Yamaji, the head of the Tokyo-based news agency APF, was arrested over the weekend in the eastern border town of Myawaddy, Burma, after reportedly entering from Thailand.

He was taken by helicopter to the Burmese capital, Naypyitaw, for questioning by military intelligence. Yamaji was attempting to report on the ongoing elections in Burma, despite the restrictions put in place by the military junta that rules the country they call Myanmar. Fortunately, Yamaji was released yesterday.

Along with arresting and restricting the access of journalists, Burma also used the election as an occasion to downgrade Internet speeds and stifle the online press. Here's a look at the crackdown that accompanied the recent, highly questionable, vote.

Visa Restrictions

On October 18, Burma's election commission decided not to grant press visas to foreign journalists, reinforcing the impression that the military government intended to isolate the country during the election. The commission's chairman, Thein Soe, said that Burma did not need any foreign journalists or observers because it already had a lot of experience in holding elections. This, despite the fact that the country last had elections 20 years ago.

Several European journalists had their requests for tourist visas rejected by the Burmese authorities.

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"The Burmese diplomats have clearly learned to use Google and are rejecting applications by people who are identifiable as journalists," a French reporter whose visa was denied told Reporters Without Borders. Twenty-five Burmese journalists who work for foreign media and two Chinese correspondents were the only foreign media reporters allowed to cover the elections.

A report by Simon Roughneen at Irrawaddy, an independent newsmagazine and website that reports on Burma, quoted an official with China Radio International saying that "usually we cannot report on Myanmar," or on other "sensitive stories," unless specifically asked to do so.

The election commission also announced on October 18 that media would not be allowed into voting stations. The commission and the country's Press Scrutiny Board, which is run by a military officer, closely examines all articles about the election and the statements of the 37 registered political parties. As an example, Favorite News, a privately owned magazine, was recently suspended for two weeks for publishing a cartoon that referred to the elections (see picture at right).

Monitoring Journalists

The Burmese correspondents of foreign news media were also closely monitored by plain-clothes police and soldiers during the voting on November 7, and throughout the preceding election campaign. "According to testimonies from reporters on the ground, some of them have been followed and sometimes searched, while the police spend their time taking photos of them while covering a story," according to a recent report published by our organization, Reporters Without Borders.

Foreign journalists have for decades been finding it extremely difficult to obtain press visas for Burma and have been forced to travel under tourist visas. This heightens the danger for the Burmese who work as fixers or agree to interviews. Zarganar, the Burmese blogger, actor, comedian and political prisoner, was jailed after talking to the BBC in 2008.

Zarganar, who is nicknamed the "Burmese Chaplin," was arrested on June 4 after talking to the BBC World Service and other foreign news media about delays in the humanitarian relief organized by the military after Cyclone Nargis struck the country in May 2008. He also blogged about the activities of the country's Buddhist monks during the September 2007 protests.

Zarganar was sentenced to 35 years in jail during a closed door trial at Insein prison. An extra 14 years were added to his sentence less than a week later. His sentence was then reduced back to 35 years. He is not due to be freed until 2033.

Internet Issues

Burma is home to some of the world's most draconian media laws, and it ranked 174 out of 178 countries in the 2010 Press Freedom Index. We have also labeled Burma as an "Enemy of the Internet," a distinction it continues to deserve thanks to its actions during the elections. Out of the 2,150-plus political prisoners in Burma, around 15 are journalists, and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists last year branded Burma the worst country in which to be a blogger.

It's therefore not surprising that Internet connections inside the country were noticeably reduced in preparation for voting. "I can no longer connect to my Gmail account using proxies," a Rangoon-based journalist said. "Accessing all the websites based abroad has become terribly slow."

According to Irrawaddy, Internet cafes in Rangoon were closed in advance of the elections. From a November 1 report on the website:

Burma's Ministry of Post and Telecommunications (MPT) has sealed off Internet access for Internet cafes and businesses, according to experts on Burma's Internet infrastructure.

Sources close to the ministry who asked to maintain anonymity have told The Irrawaddy that Internet access is normal at all government and military institutions serviced by MPT, but "access for businesses and Internet cafes" is shut down to control the flow of information in and out of the country.

On October 5, Reporters Without Borders reported the disruption of two news websites due to Internet-based attacks. The Democratic Voice of Burma and Irrawaddy magazine were temporarily knocked offline. Both provide independent coverage of current affairs in Burma. The attacks are believed to have originated from the Burmese government.

On Sunday, the authorities ordered the privately owned Eleven Media group not to update the special "Elections" sections of its website or Facebook pages.

As of today, 13 reporters and two Netizens are behind bars in Burma. The fear is that more could join them in the aftermath of these elections.

Photo of Bagan by druidabruxux via Flickr

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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