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Press Freedom and Democracy Remain "Imprisoned"

Burma; Press Freedom and Democracy Remain "Imprisoned"

On first anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, despite U Win Tin's release, press freedom and democracy remain imprisoned in Burma

The release on 24 September 2008 of journalist U Win Tin after 19 years of captivity came on the week of the first anniversary of what has come to be known as the Saffron Revolution. A year ago, the Burmese people, supported by thousands of Buddhist monks, took to the streets to denounce the junta's excesses. On 26 September 2007, the so-called "Saffron Revolution" came to a violent end as once again the junta conducted a ruthless campaign to still democratic voices.

U Win Tin - the longest serving political prisoner in Burma - has vowed to continue fighting for democracy as he walked out of the gates of the notorious Insein prison. Indeed, his release ironically merely underscores how the rest of Burma's media remains severely repressed.

U Win Tin was jailed in 1989 in the crackdown that followed the so-called 8888 Uprising the year before. He had been an editor and later on founded the National League for Democracy (NLD). An estimated 3,000 people were killed, thousands more were exiled and hundreds were jailed. U Win Tin was among those arrested.

When U Win Tin first entered jail 19 years ago, the Burmese media was already operating under harsh laws imposed by the junta. Two decades later, the environment for journalists and Burmese society in general has failed to improve.

Burma remains one of the worst places in the world to be a journalist. There are no independent daily newspapers in the country. All broadcasting networks are state-controlled. The Internet is monitored and filtered.

Burma actually had a long and proud tradition of a free press. Burma's rapid media development in the 19th and 20th centuries flowed from its strong tradition of literacy and education. The country's first newspaper, the English-language "Maulmain Chronicle", appeared in 1836. In 1873, King Mindon enacted what is believed to have been Southeast Asia's first indigenous law guaranteeing freedom of the press. He gave journalists freedom to report any wrongdoings by the royal family, judges and mayors.

In fact, by the time it gained independence from Britain in 1942, Burma had 39 newspapers: 21 in Burmese, seven in English, five in Chinese, two in Hindi, and one each in Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil, and Telugu. Burma expert Bertile Lintner notes: "By political affiliation they were of three types: pro-government, opposition leaning to the right, and opposition leaning to the left. The government and the parliament were dominated by one party, and in the absence of any real political opposition, the newspapers functioned as public watchdogs."

On March 2, 1962, army chief Gen. Ne Win seized power and the Burmese military has been consolidating power ever since. The 1962 Printers' and Publishers' Act required that all publications be approved by a censors board. This law is still in force. In 1966, the authorities banned all private newspapers and stopped registering Chinese- and Indian-language newspapers. Printing from then on has only been authorized for Burmese and English. Meanwhile, the 1975 "Memorandum to all Printers and Publishers Concerning the Submission of Manuscripts for Scrutiny" banned the publication of virtually any article that criticized the government:

After the uprising of August 8, 1988, thousands of dissidents fled across the borders, primarily to Thailand but also India, China and Bangladesh. Inside the country, the military arrested journalists including U Win Tin, and introduced:

  • Martial Law Order 8/88 (1988), which bans any "activity, literature or speeches aimed at dividing the armed forces."
  • Martial Law Order 3/89 (1989), which makes it a criminal offense to publish any document without prior registration with the Home and Religious Affairs Ministry.
  • The Television and Video Act of July 31, 1996, which compells owners of TV sets, videocassette recorders and satellite dishes to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs. It also requires that permission be obtained for public showing of imported videos (and now DVDs).
  • The Computer Science Development Law of September 20, 1996, which required permission from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs before any computer equipment or fax machines could be bought, imported or utilized. Violators face up to 15 years imprisonment. Rules on Internet use and access further control peoples' access to cyberspace, and chill users and providers alike in distributing and accessing news and information independent of what is sanctioned by government.

In the aftermath of 8888, there are now basically three types of media catering to the Burmese people: the heavily censored media inside the country; the media in exile that is aimed at the exiles and people living in border areas; and the foreign broadcasting stations, which are the only outside media able to reach deep inside Burma.

Inside the country - and mostly only in the former capital of Rangoon - there are some 400 newspapers, journals and magazines. Save for the five owned by the State, all these private publications struggle to survive economically and politically. They must navigate an uncompromising and tedious censorship regime while scrounging for advertising in a stifled and politically sensitive market.

Outside Burma, exiles have set up news agencies, sending out updates though newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, and web-based media, in both Burmese, English, and the ethnic languages the junta has since banned from mass media.

Most people rely on the Burmese-language services of foreign broadcasters like the British Broadcasting Corp., the Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Also broadcasting in Burmese are All-India Radio, Radio Thailand, China Radio International, the Voice of Malaysia, NHK Radio Japan, and a Christian radio station based in the Philippines.

The Democratic Voice of Burma broadcasts in Burmese and in seven ethnic minority languages. In May 2005, DVB launched a TV station telecasting via satellite into the country. It remains the only Burmese-operated broadcasting operation that beams television signals straight into the country.

Taking advantage of thousands of satellite dishes set up by both legal and black market operators in Rangoon, and even of a one-percent Internet penetration rate among the Burmese people, these foreign and exiled news groups exploit an inevitability in the flow of information in the digital age, but still underscore the desperation of Burma for news unfettered by government controls.

The prevalence of new media was witnessed during and after the Saffron Revolution. Despite attempts by the military regime to hinder the operations of the traditional media like television and radio, hundreds of Burmese civilians used the Internet and even their cellphone cameras to record the event and transmit information and images to the outside world.

This was repeated in May this year after cyclone Nargis devastated the country. Notwithstanding the junta-imposed news blackout, the world was afforded a glimpse of the extent of destruction and the seeming indifference of the junta to the people's suffering.

The junta is trying to catch up with the digital age, however. The websites of the news agencies run by exiled Burmese occasionally come under attack from government hackers; Internet cafes are raided, their owners told to register their computers and servers.

Censorship continues, with publishers torn between following the draconian laws of the junta and surviving the harsh competition between the numerous publications. Reporters regularly get arrested for overstepping the lines set by the military authorities.

This is the state of the Burmese media that greeted U Win Tin when he emerged from his decades-long incarceration. His freedom, as SEAPA notes, only highlights the continuing imprisonment of Burmese democracy.

U Win Tin was not only referring to himself, but also to the countless journalists, imprisoned or not, in exile or working underground, when he declared, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Saffron Revolution, "I will keep fighting until the emergence of democracy in this country."

ENDS

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