covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, March 23, 2019




Illustration: Harn Lay/The Irrawaddy

Intimidation, arrests and draconian prison sentences reached new heights in a media crackdown in Burma last year 

JOURNALISTS in Burma faced Orwellian-type scrutiny and were subjected to imprisonment and intimidation throughout 2008, while exiled Burmese media groups were also attacked—via their computers.

2008 should have been a year when Burma’s reporters reached a worldwide audience. The country was constantly in the global spotlight: hundreds of political activists from September 2007’s monk-led demonstrations were imprisoned; the Irrawaddy delta was devastated by a killer cyclone; and a junta-sponsored constitutional referendum was pushed through.

Yet except for the state-run mouthpieces, Burma’s newspapers, journals and magazines were muzzled, and their reporters faced harassment by thugs employed by the Burmese authorities.

At least 10 journalists in Burma were detained last year. One received a prison sentence of 19 years.

Fortunately, there were no reports of Burmese journalists killed. Nevertheless, international media watchdog Reporters without Borders included Burma in its overview of persecution of journalists in the same breath as Iraq, Somalia and Afghanistan.

2008 was a year in which the officials of Burma’s notorious censorship bureau, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, found themselves poring over pages of print with magnifying glasses and mirrors, looking for hidden anti-regime messages within the texts.

The measures followed a case in February when a poet, Saw Wai, published a poem in the weekly Love Journal which contained a subtle message mocking regime chief Snr-Gen Than Shwe. Saw Wai was convicted and sentenced to two years.

Other bureaucrats scanned the Internet, moving to plug the flow of information.

The editor of a weekly journal in Rangoon who asked to remain anonymous told The Irrawaddy that the degree of censorship in Burma had increased from previous years.
Routinely, many articles submitted to the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division by Burmese publications in 2008 were rejected, he said.    

“Reporters in Burma have to be careful about every single word they write and speak,” he said, adding that they could be fired if the authorities didn’t approve of their language or found the material too sensitive.

He said editors and publishers in Burma often send expensive gifts to the heads of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division in the hope of getting favorable treatment and speedy approval of each issue. 

“Every editor here, at one time or another, has been reprimanded by the censorship board,” he said.

In August, Saw Myint Than, chief reporter for the Rangoon-based weekly Flower News, was summoned by police and rebuked for a story he and another reporter had written about the murder of a couple in Rangoon. Burmese authorities do not approve of crime reporting.

In another case, a journalist at 7 Day News Journal was reprimanded by the censorship board after writing a story about the murder of five people in a house near the residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

He was sternly reminded that Suu Kyi’s name cannot be mentioned in the media—unless of course the article seeks to slander the democracy icon. 

In spite of the risks and threats, an average salary for a reporter is only 35,000 to 70,000 kyat (US $30—$60) per month. Editors generally make about 80,000 kyat ($70), and a chief editor can take home 200,000 to 300,000 kyat ($170—$260) monthly.   

“For a journalist in Burma, possessing a mobile phone or a laptop is like a dream,” said one reporter, adding that many journalists’ expenses often exceed their wages.    

Publishers are also feeling the pinch. More than 30 local and national journals and magazines were unable to pay their license fees last year and were forced to close down.

2008 saw an intense campaign by the junta to target citizen journalists, bloggers and Internet users.

In November, well-known blogger Nay Phone Latt, 28, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment on a multitude of trumped-up charges. Sources indicated the real reason behind the harsh sentence was a cartoon of Than Shwe, which appeared in one of Nay Phone Latt’s e-mails.

Giving interviews to exiled media publications and radio stations is also a risky affair.

Burma’s best-known comedian, Zarganar, who had his own blog, was sentenced to 59 years imprisonment after helping cyclone survivors in the Irrawaddy delta.

1  |  2  next page »

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

more articles in this section