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Burma 24 April 2008

Press forbidden to refer to campaign for a No vote in referendum on new constitution

Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association are outraged by the methods being used by the military government to prevent the media from freely covering the views and activities of the supporters of a No vote in a 10 May referendum on a new constitution.

"The military government is stopping at nothing to rig a referendum that looks as though it is going to be a sham rather a free and transparent election," the two partner organisations said. "The supporters of a No vote must be able to express themselves freely in the media, and journalists must be allowed to report all viewpoints."

The organisation added: "We ask the Burmese authorities to let the press do its work without prior censorship and to allow foreign reporters to visit Burma freely. This is a condition for the international community’s recognition of the validity of this election."

No Burmese media have been allowed to publish the views of the supporters of No vote. The state and privately-owned media have instead been forced to published articles drafted by official calling for a vote in favour of the military government’s proposed new constitution. The election manuals that have been distributed make no provision for press coverage of the campaign and the polling.

The slogans being used in the military government’s propaganda are "Approving the constitution is a duty for the entire population," "To ratify the constitution, go and vote Yes," "We will always remain united despite those who try to divide us - vote Yes" and "Democracy cannot be attained through anarchy and violence, but through the constitution."

These slogans are constantly being broadcast by the government TV and radio stations. Meanwhile, the Censorship Bureau is rejecting articles by journalists such as Ludu Sein Win criticising the constitution. According to sources in Rangoon, the intelligence services have drawn up a list of 34 journalists to be kept under surveillance in the run-up to the referendum.

Pro-military journalists have been mobilised to explain the virtues of the new constitution. For example, an article by Si Thu Aung entitled "New Constitution and Union system" in The New Light of Myanmar daily on 1 April claimed that it was the only one capable of guaranteeing stability and development in a country made up of minorities. The same newspaper is also providing the campaign activities of government officials and the pro-government USDA militia with extensive coverage.

Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has called for a No vote and has described the proposed constitution - which would endorse the army’s political role and guarantee its impunity - as anti-democratic. The NLD insists that the No campaign does not violate a recently-promulgated law providing for three-year prison sentences for anyone caught distributing documents opposing the referendum. The NLD’s views are being systematically censored by the press. But the accredited correspondents of foreign news agencies have been able to report on the tension surrounding the campaign.

Several dozen NLD members have been arrested for campaigning for a No vote. In one case, six were arrested at their home in Rangoon on 31 March, four days after organising a demonstration in the capital calling for No vote.

At least 60 people were arrested in the northern state of Rakhine at the start of April for wearing T-shirts calling for a No vote. Several of them are reportedly still detained. According to Mizzima News, T-shirt vendors in Rangoon stopped offering clothes displaying the Thai brand name Nobody after young pro-democracy activists started using them in their No campaign.

The Burmese rap singer Yan Yan Chan was meanwhile arrested in Monywa on 17 April, possibly because of lyrics in some of his songs referring to the lack of press freedom.

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