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Suppression of press freedom in Bur

Subject: Suppression of press freedom in Burma gets worse 

Editorial & Opinion 

      Suppression of press
      freedom in Burma gets

      From 30 newspapers, Burma, under the
      military junta, has closed down all and jailed
      most of the journalists branding them as
      'enemies of the state'. The tragic
      experience in Burma and elsewhere in the
      region calls for solidarity among journalists,
      writes Aung Zaw. 

      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

      Even under the British and then during the
      era of the late prime minister U Nu, Burma
      enjoyed flourishing free press. 

      More than 30 newspapers 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 general 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 utter stillness. That
      was the first and last of Ne Win's press

      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
      expression was only permitted ''within the
      accepted limits of the Burmese way to

      The Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) was set
      up to monitor and censor 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 activities:
      for instance, generals' visit to schools and
      pagodas giving necessary instructions. 

      Burma's press freedom made a comeback
      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

      Now, with even more restrictions,
      newspapers, journals and magazines are
      tightly controlled by the State Peace and
      Development Council (SPDC) which has
      ruled the country with iron fist for 10 years. 

      Burma's state-controlled 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

      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

      The New York-based Committee to Protect
      journalists (CPJ) has released a report this
      year saying that in Asia, Burma and
      Indonesia 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

      ''They have little faith in newspapers. They
      read newspapers for announcements,'' 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 uncertainty 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 mosquito nets?''
      meaning whether they (journ-alists) 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 they 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
      he has written will not get past the censor.
      Almost every freely created 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 enjoy more
      freedom and access to information than

      Howie 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

      Indeed, as journalists in the region are
      gathering in Bangkok to promote and
      monitor freedom of the press in Southeast
      Asia, it is high time for journalists in the
      region to build up their solidarity and
      strengthen their networking. 


      Aung Zaw is a correspondent of Radio
      Free Asia and regularly writes for The