One of the most telling examples of the problems faced by media in Burma came in May 2008, shortly after cyclone Nargis had wrought devastation on the country’s southern Irrawaddy delta. The regime had quickly deployed intelligence units to hunt for domestic and foreign journalists who managed to access the region, and whose dispatches were being picked up by international media. Their reports began to shed light on the true extent of the damage, with estimates of the death toll dwarfing official government figures. This became an immediate source of humiliation for the regime, which had initially rejected offers of foreign aid, claiming it had the situation under control.
Several weeks after the cyclone, the main English-language junta mouthpiece, the New Light of Myanmar, led with a story on the reports broadcast by exiled and foreign press entitled, ‘The enemy that is worse than the cyclone’. The damage they felt these reports had done to their reputation was deemed worse than the 140,000 dead from the cyclone, which despite the efforts of these journalists, some of whom are now in prison, became one of the world’s most underreported natural disasters.
Burma consistently ranks at the tail end of global media freedom indexes. Last year’s Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index placed Burma 174 out of 178 countries, buffered only from the ‘infernal trio’ of Eritrea, Turkmenistan and North Korea by Iran. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has also labeled it an ‘Enemy of the Internet’ and the ‘world’s worst country in which to be a blogger’.
Prior to the 1962 military coup that heralded the start of a nationalised media industry, Burma had championed free press in Southeast Asia. As many as 35 newspapers existed between 1948 and 1962, and the government kept regular contact with domestic and foreign journalists.
As the junta's rule progressed, however, the clamp was tightened. Now only three print newspapers exist, and all published material has to be verified by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) of the Ministry of Information, who censor out anything deemed critical of the government. Material has to be sent to them a week before publishing date, rendering news archival by the time it is released. Furthermore, the added cost for publishers to print and reprint pages for checking by the PSRD means that many publications tend to self-censor rather than spend money where it can be avoided. As a result, newspapers and journals are thought to lose up to a third of their content prior to publication. Moreover, each journal is required to carry one piece written by the Information Ministry, which is invariably pro-government or anti-opposition.
The only publication with foreign funding that remains in the country is the Myanmar Times, which has recently been caught up in a power struggle and its former editor, Ross Dunkley, detained.
Yet by grouping all media under the control of the government, a space for independent press has opened which has been filled by networks of underground journalists. They supply information to exiled news outlets such as DVB, The Irrawaddy, Mizzima, the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) and Kaladan Press. These groups then become a key port of call for international news.
The work these underground journalists do is illegal in Burma, and various laws exist to punish and prevent them from doing their job. The Video Act, for example, awards a 10-year prison sentence to anyone recording what the Information Ministry deems to be sensitive material, the likes of which is vaguely defined. The Electronics Act can also result in a 20-year sentence for anyone found guilty of using the internet to send information outside of the country.
Charge leveled at anyone found guilty of holding ties with individuals or organisations that “has for its object interference with the administration of the law” or which “constitutes a danger to the public peace”.
Used to control internet usage, and carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence. It bans Burmese citizens from using the internet to send information, photos or videos critical of the government to foreign audiences.
Breach of this law can result in a three year prison sentence. It covers anyone involved in the making, copying or distribution of video material deemed sensitive by the government, or anyone caught with video-making equipment without a license.
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