Suppression of press freedom in Burma gets worse
November 8 , 1998
King Mindon who ruled Burma in 1880s had no chance of seeing Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But as his kingdom began circulating Burma’s first newspaper, Yadanapon, the King declared firmly that press freedom must prevail in his dynasty. Thus, newspapers published in his kingdom practised press freedom.
Even under the British and then during the era of the late prime minister U Nu, Burma enjoyed flourishing free press.
More than 30 newspaper including English and Chinese language titles were in circulation. But when Gen Ne Win came to power in 1962 all private magazines and newspapers were eventually shut down and editors, journalists and writers were thrown into jails as they were considered to be enemies of the state.
Gen Ne Win himself held only one press conference shortly after he staged a coup.
At the press room, as journalists questioned the general about his mission, the generals was furious. The veteran journalists did not give up but sat and pressed for answers. Finally, the angry general while using obscene language jumped out of his chair and kicked it and left the press room in nutter stillness. That was the first and last of Ne Win’s press conference.
This meeting also signaled the end of free press and beginning of the repression of the press freedom in Burma.
As he ruled the country for 26 years Ne Win’s socialist regime decreed freedom of xpression was only permitted “Within the accepted limits of the Burmese way to socialism.”
The Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) was set up to monitor and sensor books, magazines and journals as well as to control writers and journalists. Newspapers were nationalised and well-respected editors and columnists were forced to close down their papers.
Though Burma continued to publish more than one daily newspaper the coverage of news was bland and limited almost exclusively to the government’s activists: for instance, generals’ visit to schools and pagodas giving necessary instructions.
Burma’s press freedom made come back in 1988 but did not last long.
During the summer of 1988, when Burma’s streets were filled with peaceful demonstrators, almost 100 private newspapers, journals and bulletins were in circulation. For a brief period, Burmese people were re-acquainted with freedom of the press. But this would last only until the military staged a bloody coup in September.
Now, with even more restrictions, news papers journals and magazines are tightly controlled by the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) which has ruled the country with iron first for 10 years.
Burma’s state-countrolled newspapers do not cover the current events in the region. Instead, news are heavily censored. Suharto’s downfall and street protests in Malaysia are rarely mentioned in the state organs.
The Britain-based anti-censorship group, Article 19, in a report released in 1995 said. Burma is one of the most heavily censored states in the world.
Burmese reporters working for foreign news agencies are heavily monitored.
“Negative side of the country or opposition movement is not allowed to be reported in foreign press. We are permitted report very few events. We know we are being watched,” said a veteran journalist in Rangoon.
The New York based Committee to Protect journalists (CPJ) has released a report this year saying that in Asia, Burma and Indonesis are the “Enemies of the press.”
“Owning fax machine or photocopier is illegal in Burma. As there is no independent press and popular foreign broadcasts are jammed, Burmese are kept in the dark even about the nature of their own government,” the CPJ said.
Having no alternative news source Burmese heavily rely on foreign broadcasts.
“They have little faith in newspapers. They read newspapers for announcemnts,” said an analyst in Rangoon.
Recently, local reporters, writers and publishers from state-owned and joint venture publications were summoned by officials to publish an article attacking opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A reporter based in Rangoon told Radio Free Asia (RFA) recently that authorities ordered publishers of weekly journals to include articles attacking Suu Kyi. “We have to go and get a copy of an article every week. They [officials] give us an article. We have to publish it. We cannot say No.”
Weekly journals now carry articles attacking Suu Kyi. Each journal has to include at least one such article.
Journalists in Burma work in an atmosphere of uncertainy and apprehension as the country is ruled by one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
Recently, veteran journalists belonging to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Myanmar were invited for a dinner by senior intelligence officers. When called, some journalists jokingly asked, “Do you want us to bring blankets and mosqui to nets?” meaning whether they (journalists) are “invited” for interrogation in prison.
FCCM members are elderly journalists whose activities are heavily monitored. “We have an informer in our group,” said one reporter in Rangoon.
Definitely, there is a reason to be afraid of.
Some reporters were simply arrested because thay had distributed publications that “make people lose respect for the government.” The jail term is between five and seven years with hard labour.
“We should know our limits. If we step out of the line we are looking at Insein,” a writer in Rangoon said. Insein is an infamous prison where political prisoners including journalists are being detained.
One Burmese writer said, “Every writer, every poet, every journalist and every cartoonist is always ruled by fear that what censor. Almost every freely crated work of art is subjected to censorship.”
Even though there is no official figure on how many journalists are currently being detained in Burma’s gulag, analysts in Rangoon guess that approximately 20 journalists including women reporters are languishing in Insein prison.
One of them is Burma’s most prominent journalist Win Tin, who has been detained for 9 years.
Win Tin is well-respected as he has written many articles on painting, world literature, politics and journalism. In the 1970s, he was chief editor of the Mandalay based Hanthawaddy newspaper, which was eventually shut down by the government.
1989, Win Tin became a leading member of the Nation League for Democracy [NLD] and chief adviser of Suu Kyi.
Now in his 60s Win Tin has been suffering from heart disease and requires constant medication. He was visited by UN former special human rights investigator Yozo Yokota and US congressmen. His sentence was extended as he was convicted of smuggling letters describing conditions at Insein prison.
Friends, relatives and admirers express their grave concern over Win Tin’s health as journalists have died in Burma’s prisons because of lack of medication.
Last year, Burma’s well known journalist and writer U Tin Shwe died in prison as a result of torture and maltreatment.
With regard to press freedom and safety of media persons, Burma might be the worst case but it is not alone.
At a recent seminar, in Subic Bay in the Philippines, on investigative journalism in Asia journalists around the region expressed their concern about harassment and some governments’ tight control over newspapers and journalists.
Journalism trainer Moeun Chhean Nariddh from Cambodia said it is very difficult for journalists to work in Cambodia because of harassment and threats.
Reporters from Indonesia and Malaysia shared the same feelings. But Indonesian journalists feel that they now enjory more freedom and access to information then before.
Howise Severino of the Philippine Centre for Investigative journalism, Manila, faces a slightly different enigma. The Philippine journalist said: “We are being harassed by local Mafia.”
He summed up: “If we are going to expose their drug business and illegal operations we are certain to face harassment, death threats. In some cases our fellow journalists were gunned down because of what they wrote.”
Indeed, as journalists in the region are gathering in Bangkok to romote and monitor freedom of the press in Southeast Asia, it is high time for journalists in the region to build up their solidarity and atrengthen thair networking.