Last Updated: Friday, 22 August 2014, 15:07 GMT

Reporters Without Borders Annual Report 2005 - Burma

Publisher Reporters Without Borders
Publication Date 2005
Cite as Reporters Without Borders, Reporters Without Borders Annual Report 2005 - Burma, 2005, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/46e690d82b.html [accessed 23 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The overthrow of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt by the military junta's hardliners has given rise to fears of fresh ordeals ahead for the privately-owned press. Five journalists were released from prison in 2004, but 12 remain locked up in very harsh conditions. Burma is one of the few countries in the world in which the state-owned and private press have to submit to relentless advance censorship.

Condemned worldwide for the detention of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and mass human rights violations, the military junta in November announced the release of thousands of prisoners, including the country's most renowned journalist, Win Tin. But he has still not actually been set free. He is one of 12 journalists still being held in insanitary cells. Just one journalist, Ko Sein Ohn, was freed in November after eight years of imprisonment.

The new government, headed by Gen. Soe Win, acted fast to bring private publications into line. Fourteen publication licenses were indefinitely suspended and three others temporarily on 21 October. The hardliners within the military junta also took over the censorship bureau, previously controlled by associates of Gen. Khin Nyunt, who has been under house arrest since 19 October.

The military also makes use of the licensing system to extort money from editors and to monitor those in charge of titles. "These new leaders despise journalists", explained a journalist in the capital Rangoon. "While Khin Nyunt used the privately-owned media, Soe Win prefers to rely on the support of the business community."

Even the English-language weekly Myanmar Times, jointly run by an Australian publisher and the military Office of Strategic Studies (OSS), was briefly shut down. One of its management figures, an associate of Khin Nyunt, was arrested.

Press banned from attending a national convention

With the same aim of allaying international criticism, the junta has also established a "road map to democracy" and from May onwards opened a national convention that is supposed to draw up a new constitution. But the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) did not take part. The secret services refused visas, intimidated journalists and maintained advance censorship.

Agence France-Presse, Voice of America radio and the Burmese and English services of the BBC World Service got no response from the Burmese authorities when they applied for visas. Like them, dozens of foreign journalists are on a government blacklist for writing reports deemed to be "hostile". Distribution of the US weekly magazine Time has twice been banned this year.

Moreover, the hundreds of delegates attending the convention can be punished with prison sentences ranging from five to 20 years if they put out to the press a speech or statement not cleared by a working committee that is controlled by the military.

The security services continue to mount surveillance on, harass or arrest journalists suspected of being critical of the military or with links to the NLD. Lazing La Htoi was detained in Myitkyina, Kachin State in the north of the country in July after making a documentary about the floods that devastated Burma the same month.

The security services also harassed two well known pro-NLD writers, Ludu Sein Win and Dagon Tayar, after they gave interviews to international radio stations Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. In a routine response, the government press openly attacked them and Ludu Sein Win's telephone was cut off for two weeks.

Five journalists released from prison hell

Six journalists were released after serving long prison sentences. On leaving prison they spoke about the very harsh jail conditions they had endured. Reporter and writer Kyaw San, who was freed in March, has been left partly deaf as a result of maltreatment. He spent seven years and three months in prison, along with journalist Aung Zin Min.

Tragically, journalist and poet Kyi Tin Oo died in a Rangoon hospital just a few weeks after his release in March after ten years in prison. He had said on his release, "I want to rest at home for a little while because I am in a poor state of health. I want to get myself well enough to be able to visit my son in prison. We have not seen one another for six years."

NLD Photographer and cameraman Khin Maung Win, known as "Sunny", described after his release in April how at Kalay prison "conditions constantly worsened. We were given very little to eat, had very little medical attention and our time for taking a shower was cut back. On top of that political prisoners were treated differently from common law criminals who could get reductions in their sentences while that was impossible for us".

Finally cameraman Ko Sein Ohn said on his release in November that he had been sentenced to ten years in prison for filming the birthday of Aung San Suu Kyi. "I have circulation problems and I have nothing left. I produced the receipts for my equipment but they didn't give anything back to me. All my work has been utterly wiped out," he told Reporters Without Borders.

One extraordinary occurrence was the Supreme Court's decision in May to commute death sentences against four people to three years in prison, including sports journalist Zaw Thet Htwe. A military court had tried them for "high treason" after an assassination attempt against junta leaders that was never confirmed. At the beginning of April, their lawyer Naing Ngwe Ya, had said, "No-one found any explosives or anti-government documents in their possession (...) No act of high treason took place and they should be released unconditionally." Zaw Thet Htwe, editor of the weekly First Eleven, during his interrogation, led by the secret services. His arrest was reportedly linked to jealousy over the success of First Eleven, specialising in football, and anger at its outspoken editorial line.

Advance censorship remains exacting and remorseless. At the start of 2004, the monthly Hsenpai (Variety), published in Shan state, was closed for handling political issues and in particular covering a meeting between UN special envoy Razali Ismail and ethnic minority leaders. In September the censorship bureau banned the privately-owned bi-monthly Khit-Sann, popular with young people and intellectuals. In August, its editor Kyaw Win was warned that his editorial line was seen as too "pro-American". The monthly was one of Rangoon's very few privately-owned publications to handle news.

At the same time another private monthly, Khit-Thit, received warnings from the censorship bureau. The front page of its edition covering the 60th anniversary of the allied landings in Normandy, was banned because the photos showing US troops in combat were seen as "too aggressive".

Burmese journalists in exile continue to work to keep their compatriots informed. The radio Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Oslo, Norway, plans to launch a TV channel. The Burma Media Association has published the first issues of a magazine, Udan, that carries censored articles by Burmese journalists and writers.

In 2004...

  • 4 journalists were arrested
  • 8 journalists threatened
  • and12 media censored

Personal account

"Welcome to Thayet Prison!"

U Thein Tan, a prominent journalist and bookseller in Mandalay, central Burma, was released from Thayet Prison, north of Rangoon on 3 January 2005. He was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1990 for writing articles about the death of four demonstrators. He should have been freed in December 2000 but the authorities slapped on an extra unspecified sentence. Now 74, he describes the ill-treatment he suffered.

I was sad from morning to night at all the atrocities that I witnessed. I cannot really describe the insults and beatings that I saw. It was terrible!" They would beat prisoners with anything they could lay their hands on: There were no rules there. They beat some people with sticks, others with bamboo canes. Others were clubbed. It was impossible to dodge the blows. When we were being taken to Thayet, they told us to lower our heads and they beat us with sticks. When we reached the prison they told us not to raise our heads and immediately beat us. Once inside, they beat us saying, "Welcome to Thayet Prison!" Afterwards two prisoners were beaten in their cells and five others were forced into humiliating positions. We were not allowed to take a shower for a whole week. When we were finally able to wash ourselves again, we found that each us bore 20-40 marks on our backs of the blows they had inflicted.

I was completely shattered by all these abuses. I was also petrified. At first they put us all in an iron cage. I feel sick just thinking about it again. Then five of us were put into a cell. At the time, I longed to be able to read, but it was forbidden. Since I don't smoke, I would soak other people's stubs in water and then stick the cigarette papers on the wall to read what was written on them. In any event, it was safer for us not to see any books. Even to read the newspapers that our families used to wrap up food they brought in for us during visits was seen as a crime. The punishment meted out was a ban on going to the toilets or taking a shower. It was awful!"

The junta must release members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), but also members of other political parties, students, the large number of elderly people who are still in prison, and all those who have been imprisoned for their political ideas or religious beliefs. I saw with my own eyes how many young people are in prison. Some were barely 19 years old and had been sentenced to 29 years. It broke my heart.

January 2005 Democratic Voice of Burma radio

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