170 out of 173 in the latest worldwide index
Area: 676,579 sq. km.
Head of state: Than Shwe, since April 1992
The army which has been in power since 1962 uses repression and propaganda to gag the pro-democracy movement and civil society, of which journalists are often in the vanguard. Burma is a paradise for censors, one of the very few countries where all publications are subjected to prior censorship. After China and Cuba, it is the world’s largest prison for journalists and bloggers.
The release in 2008 of journalist and opposition figure U Win Tin, after 19 years in prison, was overshadowed by the arrest of scores of journalists and bloggers. The military authorities, still on high alert since the September 2007 demonstrations, hunt down journalists suspected of sending news and images to media in exile. These media play a vital role in informing the Burmese people since the two television and radio channels and the daily newspapers are under direct control of the military junta. The privately-owned press is under military censorship. A private magazine sees an average one-third of its content removed in this way. The military censorship bureau said in a 2008 message to Burmese media that the “the publication of any photo, sketch, painting, article, novel or poem without being sent [in advance to the censor] will be punished”. Infringements can lead to sanctions such as seizures of publications to prison sentences for the guilty editors.
The generalissimo Than Shwe heads special police responsible for the repression. They particularly go after owners of video cameras accused of sending images abroad of the crackdown on the 2007 monks’ demonstration, as well as those that recorded government negligence during the Nargis hurricane in 2008.
Burmese prisons are filled with pro-democracy militants, lawyers, artists, students, bloggers and journalists serving long sentences. Courts martial held in Insein prison between September and November 2008 handed down hundreds of years of jail time in travesties of trials. Several journalists’ lawyers have themselves been detained for having criticised these procedures.
The young blogger Nay Phone Latt, sentenced to 20 years in prison, owes his reduction in sentence to eight years to a determined international campaign in his support. While the editor and manager of the privately-owned weekly Myanmar Nation was sentenced to seven years in prison under the press law for being in possession of documents deemed to be “subversive”.
The junta sets out to physically and psychologically break imprisoned journalists by sending them to insalubrious prisons far from the capital. The Than Shwe regime has a criminal approach to political prisoners, refusing to allow them medical treatment when they need it. Worse still, a young poet was infected with the Aids virus in prison in 2006 as a result of a forced blood transfusion.
Foreign journalists rarely get permission to report in the country and are forced to work using tourist visas, with all the risks that entails for their fixers and those who agree to talk to them, like the blogger Zarganar, who was arrested after being interviewed on the BBC.