Free Burma, Free Media
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EDITOR'S PERSPECTIVE

Free Burma, Free Media


By The Irrawaddy SEPTEMBER, 2000 - VOLUME 8 NO.9


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In 1998, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists released a report describing Burma and Indonesia as the two foremost "enemies of the press" in Asia. Since then, Indonesia’s mass media has blossomed, thanks to the fall of the Suharto regime. This now leaves Burma with the dubious distinction of being the region’s "press enemy number one." In Rangoon, state-controlled newspapers, radio and television regurgitate endless reports of generals giving "necessary instructions" to solemn audiences at temples, schools and development projects. Real news goes unreported, while all of the country’s problems are conveniently blamed on "destructive elements" opposed to the government’s efforts. Sadly, journalism is in a deep, deep coma in Burma. Press freedom can be said to exist, but only for the generals, for whom it is absolute. They are free to use the media to slam the democratic opposition, to intimidate their own people, to promote their xenophobic worldview and to drill it into the minds of the Burmese people that only the military can act as the nation’s savior. Senior journalists and former editors of well-respected but now defunct newspapers and magazines privately complain that the lack of press freedom under military rule has throttled professional journalism in the country. Decades of draconian restrictions have all but extinguished the flame that they had hoped to pass on to younger generations. Through a number of privately owned magazines, however, these journalistic leaders have been quietly teaching aspiring reporters their craft, and reminding them that Burma has not always been such a hostile place for those who enquire after the truth and seek to keep the public informed. But they labor under some of the severest censorship that the world’s press has ever seen. The fact that more and more young Burmese inside the country want to learn about journalism is encouraging. There are increasing numbers of young amateur reporters working for weekly and monthly magazines and journals. The country now has approximately 100 of these publications, all under tight control. But such hopeful signs belie the harsh reality of repression in Burma. Recently, we have seen again just how brutish the regime can be in suppressing the free flow of information. The arrest and imprisonment of 77-year-old U Chan Poh for distributing foreign press clippings with anti-government slogans written on the back is just the latest evidence of the regime’s total disdain for freedom of expression. And the lawyer’s 14-year sentence will certainly not be the last injustice the junta inflicts upon the country’s citizens. In August, journalists working for foreign news agencies were told not to cover the Dala standoff. Those who attempted to do so anyway were blocked by local officials and military intelligence officers, as the regime enforced a strict moratorium on independent reporting of the incident. More recently, in September, editors of weekly journals were instructed to "understand" (i.e. obey) the regime’s ban on reporting a brawl between students and a film crew shooting near their technical college. The authorities said they feared the students would be upset with the reports, which could trigger street protests. But in fact, blacking out the news made the students more upset and created more confusion and misunderstanding. The excuse we keep hearing from the Burmese dictators is that "Burma is not ready for press freedom." This pathetic pretext for repression can be dismissed at once as complete nonsense. Even the generals should realize that press freedom is nothing new or alien to Burma. In fact, the public dissemination of information through mass publication became a part of Burmese life in the late 19th century. In the early 20th century, Burma’s newspapers played a very important role in heightening awareness of the struggle against colonial rule. Without these newspapers, independence from British rule would have been unachievable. Their editors and journalists stood up against the colonial authorities, despite threats and intimidation. When Burma regained its independence, it had more than 30 newspapers in circulation. Newspapers continued to play an essential role in Burmese society. With little interference from the authorities, journalists were free to cover events as they saw fit. In the early 1950s, Burma was one of the most promising countries in Southeast Asia in terms of press freedom and journalistic professionalism. Following the first military coup in 1962, however, press freedom in Burma gradually vanished. Burmese journalists came under increased scrutiny. It became a crime to write stories that "make people lose respect for the government." Newspapers were shut down and foreign news agencies were thrown out of the country.


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