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Asian Tribune is published by E-LANKA MEDIA(PVT)Ltd. Vol. 20 No. 72

Burma's thirst for free media

By Zin Linn

The year 2006 began on a sad note for the media in Burma. Major Wunna, who writes under the pseudonym "Mar Jay", lost his job. His senior position in the Air Force offered him no protection since the Junta did not like his satirical articles in Yangon Times, a weekly. Wunna uses satire to devastating effect to make fun of the relocation of the capital to Pyinmana.

The sack orders were delivered at his residence after his two articles, "The tiger, which wants to die, moves to the next forest" and "The Conference of deities" appeared in the weekly. The censors, (Press Scrutiny and Registration Division- PSRD) banned these articles. The junta felt the articles, particularly the one with the analogy to a tiger, was a burlesque at the military's relocation of capital to the remote Pyinmana area as a part of the regime's blueprint for turning a jungle into an administrative center.

Wunna's second article poked fun at the National Convention, which the junta reconvened in December 2005, to draft the Constitution. The convention has been dubbed as a sham exercise by both the international community and exiled Burmese. The drafting the constitution started in 1993 but the National League for Democracy (NLD) has been boycotting the exercise since 1995. It is to be expected therefore that the Junta would go to any length to throttle criticism of the Convention. The Major Wunna episode demonstrates the insensitivity and the threat they perceive on the part of the ruling class.

The Burmese military junta has imposed strict censorship rules and regulations the world has ever known on writers and journalists. Every piece of writing has to be scrutinized by military's PSRD before being published. Burma achieved certain notoriety as predator of the press. No information is allowed to flow or be published/ broadcast without the junta's prior authorization.

Another abuse of press freedom took place on March 23. Two senior journalists Ko Thar Cho and Ko Moe Htun were sentenced to three year jail term that day. Their crime: photographing and filming in the new capital, Pyinmana, and there by 'violating' the Article 32 (A) of the Television and Video Act.

"It is a disgrace to see journalists arrested and sentenced just for taking pictures on the streets of Pyinmana," Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Burma Media Association (BMA), lamented. "This new evidence of paranoia by the military regime jeopardizes the possibility of the Burmese and international press working in the new capital", the two organizations said. Release the journos, they demanded.

Known as U Thaung Sein, Ko Thar Cho, 52, is a photo-journalist for several publications. Ko Moe Htun, 41, who is also known as Ko Kyaw Thwin, is a columnist for the religious magazine Dhamah-Yate (The Shadow of Dhamah). According to their lawyer, U Khin Maung Zaw, the Television and Video Act don’t forbid taking pictures in authorized areas. He opines that the law even allows using such pictures for private purposes. "Please don't victimize Cho and Htun unnecessarily but release them," Zaw pleaded with the authorities to no avail.

Both censorship and self-censorship are commonplace in Burma and these have severely restricted political rights and civil liberties. For the people, free speech and free press are something to be read in the books smuggled into the country. These are not something that could be experienced like their forefathers. Any material we want to publish has to go through the Press Scrutiny & Registration Division (PSRD), which is a major oppressive tool of the military regime. Not surprisingly, Burma has become a prison state.

The 1950s were the golden period for press freedom in Burma. As the country was freed from the yoke of British colonialism, there were around three dozens newspapers, including English and Chinese dailies. Most dailies appointed their own network of reporters to gather news from across the country. Foreign news came in either directly from Burmese sources or through tie-ups with global wire services and media companies. The news media was free to publish any thing that they deemed fit and fair and worthy of circulation to the public. Prior authorization, an expression now heard every minute, was something unheard off in those days.

The military coup in 1962 had brought about a qualitative change in the situation. Press freedom gradually vanished. While denying 'free media' to the people and the opposition, the Generals have been using the media to disgrace the democratic opposition and to propagate their xenophobic ideas.

Right at the moment, all news media in Burma is strictly censored and tightly controlled by the military junta—all daily newspapers, radio and television stations are in government hands. Most media businesses and publication companies are owned by generals and their cronies. Whatever few privately-owned journals and magazines are there, they are strictly under the censor's scanner. No printed matter can be seen in the book stalls without 'permission'. Photos, cassette tapes, movies and video footage also need the censor's stamp before delivering the people.

The radio, television and other media outlets are strictly under the Junta control. They are vehicles for propaganda warfare and opposition views are never allowed. Neither TV nor Radio dares to carry a talk on political and economic issues. In fact, political debates are not allowed even at the National Convention (on drafting of the Constitution). That's why the National Convention has become discredited before the bar of the people.

Burma Media Association (BMA) says that at least 18 media persons are in detention by the end of April 2006. All of them are held under life-threatening conditions and some of them are suffering fromserious physical and mental illness having remained behind the four walls of a jail for over a decade. What had earned the wrath of the ruling class was their temerity to express dissent and ability to articulate a different opinion.

Take the case of U Win Tin, a former editor-in-chief of Hanthawaddy Newspaper and Secretary, National League for Democracy. He has been languishing in the notorious Insein Prison, where about 100 political dissidents died in recent years. He has not seen the world outside Special cell No.10 for the past 17 years. U Win Tin observed his 76th birth day on March 12. Yet, this prominent Burmese writer remains stoical in the face of suffering and hardship in the torture chamber. And is taking in his stride all his health problems.

Burmese embassies carefully regulate the visit of foreign journalists to the country. Reporters Without Borders (Reporters Sans Frontieres) said in its 2005 annual report that most journalists got no response when they applied for visas. Reason: dozens of foreign journalists are on the junta's blacklist for writing reports deemed to be 'hostile' or for their contacts with the NLD.

Burma's Democracy Icon Aung San Suu Kyi has been denied her liberty since1989. She and all other leading politicians were held only because they want to articulate people's voice and want the rulers to hear the people's voice. The UN has repeatedly asked the military junta to release political dissidents unconditionally. The appeal went unheeded.

Last year, the junta arrested some ten senior political figures who attended a Khun Htun Oo, Chairman of Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, and Sao Hso Ten, Chairman of the Shan State Peace Council, are prominent amongst them. Their crime was criticism of the so called National Convention at the meeting.

In a democracy, the people choose their government. In make intelligent choices, people need to know what members of the government are doing. They must be able to get news that is not interfered with or controlled by the government. Newspapers and other news organizations must be able to report freely and fearlessly. That's why journalism has become the fourth pillar of a democracy after the legislature, the executive and the judiciary.

Free Press and Democracy compliment each other. People become participants in the democratic process of their country only when they can depend on the integrity, profundity and conscientiousness of the media.

In Burma, the entire media network is in the clutch of military-dictatorship. People are witnessing a murky era where generals and their cronies have started owning media and making it a profitable business. The more control they have on media and Internet, the higher the danger for the society. The junta is abusing the media as its tool to control and influence people's thinking.

World Press Freedom Day on May 3 was a quiet affair this year. Will it be any different next year? Frankly, I have no ready answer. Time alone will tell.

Zin Linn author is a Bangkok based Burmese journalist

- Syndicate Features -

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