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NEWS - Low Tolerance for Press and
Subject: NEWS - Low Tolerance for Press and Artistic Freedom
Media-Burma: Low Tolerance for Press and Artistic Freedom
Inter Press Service
RANGOON, (Nov. 10) IPS - The 19th century Burmese
monarch King Mindon never had a chance to hear about
Article 19 in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But he still knew the value of free speech, declaring that
press freedom would prevail in his kingdom when the
country's first newspaper began circulating in the early
Even when Burma became a province of British India in 1886
and through the post-independence regime of Prime Minister
U Nu, the freedom of the press was a much-respected right
in this South-east Asian country.
But that is no longer the case. Indeed, for almost four
decades now, the Burmese media have essentially been
under gag order.
In a report released this year, the New York-based
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says Burma and
Indonesia are "enemies of the press" in Asia. The
Britain-based anti-censorship group, Article 19, also
describes Burma as among the most heavily censored states
in the world.
To be sure, Burma is only one among several countries in
South-east Asia that have low tolerance for media freedom.
During a recent media conference held in Subic Bay in the
Philippines, Indonesian, Malaysian and Cambodian
journalists and media observers told of harassment and tight
state control of the press.
Still, Burmese journalists lament the fact that up until the
early 1960s, they had enjoyed the right to speak and write
whatever they pleased with little worries of violent
from the government.
These days, journalists say they "have to know their limits"
they do not want to end up in prison.
Comments one writer here: "Every writer, every poet, every
journalist and every cartoonist is always ruled by the fear
that what he has written will not get past the censor.
every freely created work of art is subjected to
Even Burmese reporters working for international news
agencies are monitored heavily. One journalist here says
they are not allowed to report on the "the negative side of
the country and the opposition movement". He adds, "We
know we are being watched."
As a result, the dailies circulating nowadays in Burma have
reports that are uniformly bland and limited mostly to
chronicles of the government's activities, such as the
generals' visits to schools and pagodas.
Frustrated Burmese have turned to broadcasts of foreign
media outfits -- most of which are also jammed by the
government -- for more news. Comments a media observer:
"They have little faith in newspapers -- they read
newspapers for announcements."
Ironically, what signalled the end of press freedom in Burma
was a press conference -- the first and last held by Gen. Ne
Win after he staged a coup and took over power in 1962.
Angered by the numerous queries hurled at him by veteran
journalists, the general swore, jumped out of his chair and
kicked it. Then he marched out of the room in fury.
During his 26-year rule, Ne Win closed down all private
magazines and newspapers and threw numerous journalists
and writers in jail.
His regime declared that freedom of expression was
permitted only "within the accepted limits of the Burmese
Way of socialism".
The Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) was set up to monitor and
censor books, magazines and journals, as well as to control
writers and journalists.
In 1988, the year Ne Win stepped down, Burma had a brief
re-acquaintance with press freedom. As people filled the
streets of the capital in peaceful demonstrations calling
democracy, almost 100 newspapers and bulletins came in
The 1988 elections yielded a narrow victory for the
democrats, but the military refused to give up power and
staged a coup.
The State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), which
has ruled the Burma since then, has put even more
restrictions on the local media. It also tells them what to
Recently, it ordered journalists to publish articles
opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. A
Rangoon-based reporter told Radio Free Asia: "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
For journalists here, attracting the ire of officials may
jail terms of some five to seven years, with hard labor.
media observers estimate that there are about 20
including women reporters, currently in Burmese prisons.
Among the more prominent jailed journalists is Win Tin, who
has been in Insein prison for the last nine years. He was
chief editor of the Mandalay-based Hanthawaddy newspaper
in the 1970s. In 1989, Win Tin became a leading member of
the National League for Democracy (NLD) -- and one of Suu
Kyi's advisers. He was arrested that year.
Now in his 60s, Win Tin suffers from heart disease and
requires constant medication. His sentence was extended to
11 years after he was convicted of smuggling out letters
describing the dismal conditions at Insein.
Relatives and friends have expressed concern over his
physical condition. Some US congressmen and former U.N.
special human rights investigator Yozo Yokota have
managed to visit him in the last several months, in attempts
to see that Win Tin is still in good health.
Media observers say there have been cases of journalists
dying while in prison, some because of the lack of
medication. Last year, well-known writer U Tin Shwe died
while in jail reportedly because of torture and