Burma: a history of opression
The press censorship laws in Burma are draconian to say the least. In its latest move the Burmese military junta has disconnected telephone lines of journalists, leading politicians and activists to curb free the flow of information to the world outside. One journal editor, worried about the disconnection, told Index that the authorities had disconnected […]
24 Sep 07

The press censorship laws in Burma are draconian to say the least. In its latest move the Burmese military junta has disconnected telephone lines of journalists, leading politicians and activists to curb free the flow of information to the world outside.

One journal editor, worried about the disconnection, told Index that the authorities had disconnected over 20 mobile and landline phones in a week.

‘They disconnected some of my colleagues’ mobile and landline phones and of some leading politicians. The junta should not have disconnected the telephones of journalists,’ he said.

The regime has cracked down and arrested peaceful demonstrators who have been protesting over the sudden fuel price hike in mid-August. During the initial demonstrations, media workers and others managed to dispatch news and photographs to the Burmese Internet and broadcast media in exile. After that, the regime tried to block the free and unbiased flow of information outside the country.

The Press Scrutiny Board (censor board) has been restricting reporting news of these demonstrations in the domestic media.

‘Some reporters visited the scene of demonstrations. But they did not try to report the news as they knew that such reports would be censored by the board. This is understood by everyone,’ a Rangoon-based weekly journal editor told Index.

‘I think the monks gave a deadline in their ultimatum to the regime. [The junta] seem to be trying to block and prevent news from spreading to the outside world. So they disconnected mobile and landline phones of those who have frequent contacts with the outside world,’ he added.

Initially, the peaceful demonstrations were started by the 8888 generation students. Then the monks joined it along with party members of the NLD, which posted a landslide victory in the 1990 general elections but was not allowed to take power.

Government-backed Union Solidarity and Development Association (USDA) members beat up the demonstrators and arrested them. Amnesty International claimed there were at least 150 arrests during these crackdowns and that the number of political prisoners has reached 1,200. The official figure is just 60.

The tension was growing when the army and the USDA beat the protesting monks on 5 September in Pakhokku. It was after this that four monks’ unions demanded that the regime apologise to the monks, roll back the fuel and essential commodity prices and engage in dialogue with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to resolve the current political crisis. The monks set their deadline on for 17 September. The monks’ unions appealed to the 400,000-strong monks in Burma to boycott the regime by not accepting alms offered by them if they did not concede to their demands by the deadline.

Meanwhile, the regime issued a statement threatening that the NLD would be outlawed for inciting and instigating the current demonstrations. The junta also disconnected the NLD landline phone in its headquarters and at least 10 mobile phones of its members.

‘Our landline has had no connection for both incoming and outgoing calls since Wednesday. We didn’t enquire about it, but just lodged a complaint to the exchange,’ NLD spokesperson U Nyan Win told Index.

The military regime has been tapping the phone lines of politicians and political activists for a long time. But they intensified the tapping after 2005, and now they have disconnected the phone lines.

‘They always tap the phones. Now it is very clear that they are not just tapping these phones but even disconnecting the lines, not only of politicians and activists, but also journalists,’ Burma Media Association (BMA) Secretary Ko San Moe Wai said.

We tried to contact the Myanmar ministry of communication but to no avail. A staff from Naypidaw Auto Telephone exchange department (a branch of the ministry) told Index, ‘Naypyidaw exchange and Yangon exchange are different departments. Please contact the concerned exchange.’

USDA members also attacked and harassed journalists who covered the protests by snatching their cameras and beating them.

‘When I got to Hledan junction traffic light, I saw USDA members in front of the protesters. They blocked the way and shouted ‘strike the photographer’ when I tried to take a photograph. I had to flee from the scene immediately. I escaped, but some were hit by them,’a reporter from a Rangoon-based foreign wire agency said.

The regime also blocked the YouTube website, where people could view video clips and footages of the ongoing demonstrations.

Moreover, Internet speed has slowed down significantly since the first week of September.

Burmese journalists recalled the days of free media for a month in the heydays of the 1988 uprising.

‘In those days, when the entire administrative machinery had collapsed, we could publish what we wanted to. We printed from any press we had a close relation with. There were no arrests, no censors. The people were well informed in those days. We published these papers until the day before the coup on 17 September, 1988,’ the journalist said.

When the military grabbed power again from the Burmese Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) government, they tightened the censorship rules even more.

They amended the colonial-era Printing and Publishing Act in 1996. Under the newly enacted law, possession and use of a fax machine without permission and sending and receiving email without authorisation can lead to imprisonment, or a fine, or both. Moreover guidelines were set in the 11 censorship rules (commandments) for printers and publishers who are forbidden to print material containing sexual matter, violence and supernatural violence among other subjects.

But the regime liberalised in some areas. They gave more permits and license for journals and magazine publications. The censor board was shifted from the Home Affairs ministry to the Information Ministry in October 2004, after the ousting of the once powerful General Khin Nyunt.

After that they granted more publishing permits to journal and magazine publishers. Now the total number of private journal and magazine permits has reached over 200.

‘Previously when the censor board was under the Home Affairs ministry, they gave such permissions only to government departments and the real publishers and editors had to hire these permits and license by paying some fees, about 20 per cent to the license owner. Now this hire permit system has been abolished,’ a journal editor said.

‘Some censorship rules have been liberalised. We are a little bit freer in 2006-07 than in 2004-05,’ he added.

But under a plan of ‘attack media with media’, Information Minister U Kyaw San, Industry Minister U Aung Thaung and Lt Gen Htay Oo of USDA are conducting disinformation campaigns against Burmese media groups in exile, offering economic incentives to some domestic journalists and pushing them to write pro-regime articles and reports. At the same time the government-backed USDA and Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation (MWAF) visited government offices and talked to government employees on how the reports of Burmese media groups in exile are baseless and concocted.

In press conferences they let their touts ask pre-arranged questions, and in return give some minor scoops that need not be passed by the censor board. Most of the time they put pressure on publishers to print their propaganda articles and reports in almost all journals and magazines on a mandatory basis. Thai-based BMA Secretary Ko San Moe Wai said that this is in total and sheer violation of press freedom.

‘Free media simply means unbiased and objective coverage. We report what we see based on concrete facts and figures. We shall point out the weakness frankly, should we find any. This is what free media is,’ he added.

The veteran journalist said that the real challenge for all domestic journalists is to report what they see and feel, at the risk of being arrested and their publishing permit being terminated.

‘We all have our own feelings. We have to put media ethics and media norms on the back burner and have to think only of our survival. We have to ask ourselves how long will I be able to write. We have to put media norms in second place,’ he added.

Another veteran journalist told Index how domestic journalists have to write in an evasive manner, using cryptic language, in order to get stories past the censor board.

‘We cannot give our message to our audience directly. We have to write cleverly, comprehensively, to cover the message that we want to give. It’s very difficult for us to get our reports and articles past the magnifying glasses of the censor board,’ he said.

Pyapon Ni Lon Oo was fired as chief editor of Cherry magazine in 1997 for allegedly getting involved in politics. He told Index: ‘Nowadays the censorship is too tight. There are many censors now. Writers cannot write directly, but have to write indirectly and cleverly.’

He added that the censor board censored not only individual articles, but also looked at the writers and their background and their track record in politics.

‘The censor board has its established rules. But it never follow its own rules. If the writer is their man, or pro-regime, they overlook the rules and pass articles without scrutiny or screening. If not, they won’t pass it, in total disregard of the story. The rule depends on the individual. It shouldn’t be so in a free media.’

Nem Davies is a correspondent for

By Padraig Reidy

Padraig Reidy is the editor of Little Atoms and a columnist for Index on Censorship. He has also written for The Observer, The Guardian, and The Irish Times.