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Burma 26 December 2007

Three months of quiet repression, arrests, censorship and propaganda

The military government has constantly hounded Burma’s journalists during the three months that have gone by since 27 September, the day that Japanese video reporter Kenji Nagai was murdered by a soldier in Rangoon, Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association said today.

The police and army continue to hunt for journalists and activists who photographed and filmed the crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations. At least nine have had to flee to Thailand. The privately-owned media have resumed publishing but the Censorship Board has stepped up its control.

“The impression that things are back to normal is false,” the two organisations said. “The security services are still looking for the underground journalists who let the world know about the violence against monks and pro-democracy activists. We call for an end to the intimidation of the press and for the release of the six journalists currently held. The international community must find a way to get UN special rapporteur Sergio Pinheiro’s recommendations implemented.”

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Burma on 14 December that calls on the government to guarantee the freedom of the independent media. A Reporters Without Borders addressed the council, calling for the release of Burma’s journalists and an end to the censorship.

Ko Aung Gyi, the former editor of the sports magazine 90 Minutes, is one of the latest journalists to be detained. It is not known why he was arrested in Rangoon. Two other former journalists, Ko Win Maw and Ko Aung Aung, have also been arrested without being charged. At least 15 other journalists have been arrested since September and then released. The six currently in prison include Win Tin, a prominent journalist held since July 1989.

People who have been arrested and then released say the police ask everyone for the names of the “cameramen,” meaning the journalists who work clandestinely for foreign news media or Democratic Voice of Burma, an exile radio and TV station based in Oslo. Many photographers and cameramen who contributed to exile media have stopped working altogether for fear of being identified and some have even thrown away their equipment.

The Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA), a pro-government militia, continues to be hostile towards journalists. The Myanmar Nation photographer Aung Khine Nyunt was beaten by thugs believed to be USDA members while taking photos of a march on 21 October. In all, about ten journalists were beaten or roughed up during the demonstrations.

At least nine Burmese journalists have fled the country because of the repression, and have sought refuge in Thailand. Most of them left the capital during the first wave of arrests at the end of September.

The Censorship Board has had no qualms about asserting itself. The weekly News Watch was banned for a week in mid-November after proposing the publication of photos that displeased the military. The military censors have even forced editors to resign. In early December, the authorities punished the magazine Action for failing to withdraw articles censored by the government. A censorship official publicly criticised Action for not being “constructive.” The newspaper Middle Line also got into trouble. It was suspended after its editor, Oo Swe, complained that some media were getting favourable treatment from the censors, according to the exile magazine and website Irrawaddy.

To prevent Burmese from seeing reports and pictures of the crackdown in September, the military government has controlled the sale of foreign publications very strictly since mid-October. The magazines Time and Newsweek and Thai newspapers have not been seen in news stands for the past few weeks. The Internet has been restored but surveillance has been stepped up in Internet cafés. For fear of reprisals, many Internet café owners have removed the programmes from their computers that allowed users to circumvent the government’s filters.

Around 10 journalists suspected of sympathising with the pro-democracy protests have been banned from being published or interviewed. They include sports reporter Zaw Thet Htwe, cartoonist Au Pi Kyee and writer Pe Myint.

The censorship is not limited to political topics. The military government, for example, banned coverage of a new outbreak of bird flu on 20 October, although the outbreak was announced by the government agency responsible for dealing with it.

Anyone who criticises the government can be the target of repression. This is why the authorities banned a video of a show by the comic troupe “Say Young Sone.” According to Democratic Voice of Burma, which decided to televise it, the DVD is selling very well on the streets of Rangoon. Similarly, a spokesman for the Zantila Rama monastery was sentenced to two years in prison in December for complaining that military personnel stole money during a search. Democratic Voice of Burma said he was found guilty of defamation. A Burmese rapper was arrested in November for paying tribute to the monks at a concert. And Irrawaddy reported in early November that Tin Yu, a resident of a Rangoon suburb, was arrested for “talking to foreign media.”

The government media continue to pump out their propaganda, putting all of the activities of the military government’s leaders on the front page. The government’s TV stations have on several occasions vilified the reporting of the foreign media, such as the BBC, RFA and VOA, accusing them of trying to “destabilise” Burma. The government media have been ordered to praise the return to normality and the country’s economic progress. At the end of November, the USDA militia announced the launch of a new daily newspaper to reinforce the public’s support for the regime.

Finally, many Rangoon-based journalists have criticised Myat Khaine, the editor of the weekly Snap Shot, for voluntarily giving the information ministry photos of protesters.




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