Despite growing international pressure, the military junta has not released its iron grip on the media. Burma’s most renowned journalist, U Win Tin, laureate of the Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France 2006 prize, spent his 76th birthday in his prison cell. The privately-owned press is still subjected to unrelenting advance censorship.
The information ministry blows hot and cold on both the private press and foreign journalists. New titles were granted publication titles on several occasions in 2006. And in October, foreign journalists, some of whom had been banned from the country for years, were invited to cover the resumption of the work of the convention drawing up a new constitution.
But alongside these signs of openness, the security services, reorganised within the Military Security Force (Sa Ya Hpa), has stepped up surveillance of the press. Civilians have also reportedly been trained to identify international media “informers”. Telephone tapping capacity was boosted during 2006, with the creation of two new eavesdropping centres in Mandalay, central Burma.
The control system never sleeps. In November, the political police and members of the pro-junta militia UDSA harassed hundreds of writers and journalists who attended the birthday party of Ludu Daw Amar, founder of the Ludu Daily News, in Mandalay. The junta resented the fact that she used the occasion to speak out against political and social oppression and the lack of press freedom in the country.
The junta does not jam international radios broadcasts in Burmese but they do harass and punish some of their participants. The film-maker and journalist Thura “Zar Ga Nar” was in May banned from all artistic activity after taking part in a broadcast on the Burmese service of the BBC. This decision was taken by Major Thein Htun Aung, director of the information ministry’s cinema department.
In the face of ever more overt hostility from the United States, the military regime has stepped up propaganda against “imperialists" and other "neo-colonialists". In February, information ministry officials told a group of Burmese journalists and local correspondents for the foreign press in Rangoon to respond to criticism carried by the foreign press. Identical articles regularly appear in most of the country’s media attacking Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the United States and opposition figures. They are written by agents of the junta’s propaganda body, the Office of Strategic Studies.
There are now more than 100 privately-owned publications in the country, all of them subjected to advance censorship. Alongside traditionally forbidden subjects, such as democracy, the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi and the socio-economic crisis, national and international events routinely go unreported. This was the case in 2006, when Asian and UN diplomats visited the country in a bid to soften the junta’s stance. Anti-government demonstrations in the Philippines and Thailand were never covered in the press. The magazine Padauk Pwint Thit was forced to withdraw an issue in December after the Censorship Bureau rejected seven of its articles. Even within the prisons, a censorship committee ensures that any “subversive” reading matter is removed. In March, the wife of the jailed journalist and writer, Than Win Hlaing revealed that her husband was denied all reading matter because of his “defect” of taking notes of what he read.
U Win Tin, detained since 1989
As of 1st January 2007, at least seven journalists were behind bars in Burma. Among them, U Win Tin, who has been imprisoned since July 1989. He is receiving treatment for high blood pressure and an inflamed prostate. Although a prison doctor gives him twice-monthly checkups, he is dependent on the support of his family, who regularly bring him food and medication. After 16 years in prison, his health has deteriorated badly. He has suffered two heart attacks.
In June, the regional court in Mandalay upheld a three-year prison sentence handed down to photo-journalist U Thaung Sein, alias U Thar Cho, and to Ko Moe Htun, alias Ko Kyaw Thwin, editorialist on the religious magazine Dhamah-Yate (The shadow of Dhamah). It appears that no witnesses were called to give evidence at their trial. They were arrested in March and found guilty of taking unauthorised photos of the new capital Naypyitaw.
Also in June, Aung Than, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), and Zeya Aung, a student at Pegu University, were sentenced to 19 years in prison for having written and distributed a collection of poems “Daung Man" (“The power of the fighter peacock”, in reference to the NLD).
The Burmese government’s Internet policies are even more repressive than those of its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbours. The military junta clearly filters opposition websites. It keeps a very close eye on Internet cafes, in which the computers automatically execute screen captures every five minutes, in order to monitor user activity. The authorities targeted Internet telephony and chat services in June, blocking Google’s Gtalk, for example. The aim was two-fold: to defend the profitable long-distance telecommunications market, which is controlled by state companies, as well as to stop cyber-dissidents from using a means of communication that is hard to monitor.