Media Warned Not to Cover Protests

Buddhist monks display placards as they march against the military government in Myanmar, during a demonstration in Kathmandu, Nepal on Oct. 1. (Photo: Prakash Mathema / AFP-Getty Images)

As the Burmese military dictatorship cracked down on protesters, killing a number of people including monks, it warned journalists not to cover or participate in the street protests that spread across the tightly controlled Southeast Asian country.

One Japanese photojournalist was fired upon and killed on Sept. 27 while taking pictures of the protests. In military-ruled Burma, the record of press freedom remains dismal, as six journalists are currently languishing in jail for voicing dissenting opinions.

The protests, which were sparked by students reacting to inflation and an unexplained 500 percent rise in fuel prices, escalated to become the largest anti-government gathering since the pro-democracy demonstrations of Sept. 8, 1988.

The military opened fire on that day, leaving an estimated 3,000 dead. The generals then vowed to never allow a protest of that size again, a promise they have maintained through brutal suppression of any form of dissent.

The main political party of Burma, the National League for Democracy (N.L.D.), posted a landslide victory in the ensuing general elections in 1990 but the junta, as the military government is called, never transferred power and put the leader of the N.L.D., Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, under detention.

A senior officer in the autocratic military government summoned journalists and editors from Rangoon-based periodicals to his office on Sept. 23 and warned them against participating in the anti-government protests that were gaining momentum by the day.

Reacting to the suppression of the press, the Burma Media Association (B.M.A.) said the order appeared to be a hasty response to a call by an organization of journalists and artists to join the protests.

A journalist told the B.M.A.: "All journals and periodicals were forced by the Information Ministry to carry an announcement in their publications committing their disinterest in the ongoing protests."

The government didn't spare artists either. On Sept. 25, authorities arrested famous Burmese comedian and critic, Zarganar, at his residence. Police raided his house in the dead of night and seized photographs and other materials before arresting him.

The dictators in Rangoon never allow dissenting voices to be heard through the media. At present six Burmese journalists are in jail. Photojournalist Win Saing was arrested on Aug. 28 while taking photos of activists in the N.L.D. He is said to be in danger of being maltreated, as are hundreds of other people arrested in recent weeks.

Burma's best known editor, U. Win Tin, age 77, has been imprisoned since July 1989 in a special cell in Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison. Sentenced to 20 years in prison for anti-government propaganda, he was one of the organizers of the demonstrations in 1988.

U. Thaung Sein, photojournalist, and Ko Moe Htun, lead writer for the religious magazine Dhamah-Yate, were sentenced in March 2006 to three years in prison for taking some disturbing photographs.

There are at present more than 100 privately-owned publications in Burma, all of them subjected to advance censorship. Democracy, the plight of Aung San Suu Kyi, the socio-economic crisis, and national and international events are traditionally forbidden subjects.

The Burmese government's Internet policies are even more repressive than those of its Chinese and Vietnamese neighbors. The military junta clearly filters opposition Web sites.

During the initial demonstrations, media workers managed to dispatch news and photographs to the Burmese Internet and broadcast media in exile. After that, the regime tried to prevent the free flow of information outside the country by blocking almost every site that carries news or information about the country and even barred access to Web-based e-mail.

However, an army of young "techies" in Rangoon are working around the clock to circumvent the censors, posting pictures and videos on blogs almost as soon as they are taken.

When Burma's detained icon of democracy Aung San Suu Kyi stepped outside her home in Rangoon to greet marching monks and supporters, the only pictures of the landmark moment were posted on blogs.

Mizzima News, an India-based news group run by exiled dissidents, picked up one of the photos of  Suu Kyi and revealed that more than 50,000 people accessed their Web site that day.

"Many people were thanking monks for their courage, and were rallying support behind monks," said Sein Win, from Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai. "The censorship is very tough, but many people want the world to know what is happening in Burma."

State media accused the foreign press of stirring unrest, and no foreign journalist has obtained an entry visa. Scores of journalists and human rights activists are blacklisted and banned from entering the country. One journal editor said that the authorities recently disconnected over 20 mobile and landline phones.

Another veteran journalist spoke about some of the difficulties domestic writers face, stating: "It's very difficult for us to get our reports and articles past the magnifying glasses of the censor board."

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Binod Ringania.