Recently returned from Rangoon, Fergal Keane reflects on how new and old media worked together, allowing brave dissidents to break the Burmese junta’s censorship
This is the story of how new and old media combined to beat the censors in Burma, a narrative of how cyberspace, along with one of the BBC’s most venerable outlets and some old fashioned undercover work challenged a repressive regime’s attempts to destroy independent journalism. Since then there has been a crackdown and the “bamboo curtain” has been lowered once again. But not for long I believe.
When I first went to Burma in the mid 1990s the only way of getting images out of the country was via the airport. Pictures and tape were usually hand-carried out of the country. It was a journalist who recorded the images and who carried them to Bangkok or Singapore from where they could be transmitted to the world.
In those days the Internet didn’t really feature in our calculations. It was there alright, but we were still blind to its extraordinary potential as a weapon in the war for information and against censorship. Spool forward a decade and our understanding of what the net can achieve has changed completely.
Within hours of the protests starting in Rangoon and other cities, local Burmese were emailing the BBC and other news gatherers with detailed accounts of the situation along with still and video images. The staff at BBC Online became key players in explaining the unfolding crisis to the waiting world and to their colleagues in the newsroom.
For the first time that management-speak phrase “integrated newsroom” made sense to me. It worked as simply and wonderfully as this: a student with a digital camera points at a parade of monks defying the military. He goes to a computer and downloads the material, which he then emails to BBC online. The material goes from there to BBC World and Domestic bulletins and on to many millions of viewers. Emails, still photographs and video came flooding in.
Burmese dissident groups and pro-democracy activists made full use of the Internet, releasing photographs and bulletins on arrests and murders. Again much of the material came from “citizen journalists” inside Burma. One of the most startling images of the entire uprising came from the camera of a passer by who saw the body of a Burmese monk floating in a stream.
Meanwhile, over at Bush House, the BBC’s Burmese service was receiving numerous eyewitness accounts of the protests and the subsequent military crackdown. As Burma is still a country very much in the radio age the broadcasts of the Burmese service were to have a profound impact. For people in the rural areas in particular the radio provided the only independent reporting of what was happening. At the Burmese service desk in our Bangkok bureau I watched as the staff made endless calls to contacts inside the country.
As the story moved from one of protest to repression, the families and friends of those who had vanished into state custody were able to give their testimony. For me and the rest of the BBC team in the region the imperative was to get into Burma. I wanted to be able to see for myself whether the regime had succeeded in crushing the spirit of the protest movement. I won’t go into how I managed to get into the country: suffice to say that I was able to operate for several days without being picked up. It was nerve wracking and posed immense human and journalistic challenges. The BBC was denounced every day in the state-run press and television.
Apart from one’s own safety and liberty there was the pressing question of making sure I didn’t draw trouble on the Burmese I was meeting. For that reason all encounters took place in safe houses, or else while driving around the suburbs of Rangoon. With a security apparatus that has its spies everywhere I felt constantly under threat of being caught. How did I know that the person arranging a meeting with a dissident wasn’t in fact a spy leading us all to disaster? I didn’t. I had no choice but to take things on trust.
I think it says a great deal for the spirit of the Burmese people—and the state’s failure to completely intimidate them—that I was not betrayed. I would like to be able to detail the various tricks of the trade involved in beating the secret police and producing a report that featured dissident voices and monks in hiding. But that would be foolish. The secret policemen will doubtless read this piece.
My report was given wide circulation on BBC News—from Online to BBC World and our domestic bulletins. And of course there was the interview I did with the Burmese service when I returned to Bangkok. It meant more to me than all the rest, something close to the pure purpose of journalism. I was broadcasting back into Burma and I was able to imagine people listening up and down the country. As they do every day and every night.
Fergal Keane is a BBC Special Correspondent