Although Burma's authoritarian military rulers proposed a "road map" to democracy in 2004, neither the Burmese people nor its press saw many positive results. On the contrary, conditions for journalists deteriorated, with hard-liners tightening their grip on power inside the government and cracking down further on Burma's official media and the few remaining independent writers and editors. In October, Prime Minister Khin Nyunt – the author of the road map – was replaced by a senior military figure, Lt. Gen. Soe Win, a move widely interpreted as a major blow to reformers in the ruling junta.

Burma's strict censorship and absolute control over print and broadcast media inside the country have long stifled its press. The government's Press Scrutiny Board (PSB) enforces harsh rules governing which subjects are off-limits for journalists, including stories about natural disasters and economic hardship, sources told CPJ.

But after an earthquake and tsunami devastated many coastal areas of South Asia on December 26, drawing the world and international media's attention, officials took the radical step of inviting foreign journalists to an actual press conference for the first time in 15 years to relay information about local casualties, according to the BBC.

The censors' daunting regulations for private publications include a restrictive licensing procedure that requires publishers to lease licenses from various governmental departments, according to exiled journalists. Then, if a magazine prints any information deemed too sensitive or offensive by authorities, its license can be easily revoked.

The popular current affairs journal Khit-Sann suffered such a fate in September. One of a small group of private publications run by independent journalists and writers, Khit-Sann was licensed in August 2003. The bimonthly journal featured stories about international current events, as well as adaptations of articles by U.S. political writers such as Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and Samuel Huntington. Sources tell CPJ that Khit-Sann was gaining popularity among young writers, intellectuals, and even members of the military establishment, all of whom rarely have access to international commentary on politics and economics.

In August, censors called in Editor Kyaw Win and reprimanded him for having a "pro-American" editorial line, according to exiled Burmese journalists. Weeks later, on September 1, the journal's license was suspended, and it ceased publishing. Another private journal, Khit-Thit, was reprimanded in June for attempting to run a cover story about the 60th anniversary of D-Day, according to the exiled journalists' group Burma Media Association (BMA). Censors, who review copies of all publications before they are printed, rejected three different versions of the cover, saying that the photograph of U.S. soldiers landing in France was too threatening, reported BMA.

In the absence of dependable domestic media, many people rely on Burmese-language international radio broadcasts for their news, including Radio Free Asia, Voice of America, and the BBC. The individuals who provide information from inside the country to these broadcasters and other foreign organizations do so at great risk.

In May, on the eve of the National Convention, which Burma's ruling junta called to frame a new constitution as part of its supposed seven-step plan to democracy, former BBC stringer and lawyer Ne Min was sentenced to 15 years in prison by a closed military tribunal at the notorious Insein Prison in the capital, Rangoon. Military intelligence officers had arrested Ne Min in February for allegedly passing information to "unlawful organizations" outside Burma, such as the BBC and exiled Burmese news organizations, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a Thailand-based group. He previously served eight years in prison for allegedly "spreading false rumors" in the 1990s.

During the convention itself, Burmese authorities exerted tight control over the press, denying visas to foreign reporters who had applied to cover the event. In addition, the convention was held at a location outside Rangoon that was difficult for local journalists to reach. The opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) party and many other ethnic political groups boycotted the convention. Observers say the military authorities made little progress toward introducing real representative democracy in Burma.

In September, veteran journalist Ludu Sein Win and writer Dagon Taya gave interviews to foreign broadcasters calling for reconciliation between opposition parties and the ruling junta. In retaliation, they were blasted in the official media, had their phone lines cut, and came under heavy government surveillance, sources told CPJ.

Several publications licensed through the Department of Military Intelligence were suspended or closed in October, after Prime Minister Khin Nyunt's dismissal, according to international news reports. Nyunt previously ran the country's military intelligence service, which the ruling junta dismantled later that month.

One of the suspended publications was the popular sports weekly First Eleven, whose editor, Zaw Thet Htway, was arrested and sentenced to death in 2003 for high treason. On May 12, the Supreme Court converted his death sentence to three years in prison. The government's reversal came after intense pressure from the United Nations' International Labor Organization (ILO) and other groups, including CPJ, sources said. The ILO is one of the few international groups with a permanent office in Burma. Zaw Thet Htway's lawyer Naing Ngwe Ya appealed the three-year sentence in September, and it was reduced again in October, to two years. Then, on January 3, 2005, Zaw Thet Htway was released from prison along with two other imprisoned freelance journalists, Ohn Kyaing and Thein Tan, who had been sentenced to seven years in prison in 1990 for "inciting unrest by writing false reports," according to the AAPP. Hundreds of other prisoners were freed in late 2004, including political prisoners, as part of a general amnesty declared by the ruling junta in November.

Two journalists who remain behind bars, Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun, better known by his pen name, Nyein Thit, were honored with CPJ's 2004 International Press Freedom Award in November. The two filmmakers were arrested in October 1999 for making independent documentaries that portrayed the harsh realities of everyday life in Burma, including poverty and forced labor. They were both sentenced to eight years in prison. Another documentary filmmaker, Lazing La Htoi, was arrested in August in the northern state of Kachin after filming the aftermath of record flooding there.

Despite intense international pressure for the release of NLD leader Aung San Suu Kyi and increased economic sanctions, the military junta kept Suu Kyi under house arrest during 2004. She has been in detention since last May, when she and a group of her supporters were brutally attacked in northern Burma in an incident known as "Black Friday."

Supporters were able to read a profile of Suu Kyi in the March edition of Reader's Digest, which appeared on newsstands intact without any deletions, despite the fact that foreign publications are routinely heavily censored before being allowed into the country. The profile included critical remarks about the ruling junta and sold quickly, according to Agence France-Presse. Observers say that authorities may have allowed the profile to be published unaltered because the magazine's readership, like that of all English-language publications, is relatively small and therefore is viewed as less of a threat.

2004 Documented Cases – Burma

MAY 7, 2004
Posted: June 30, 2004

Ne Min, freelance

Ne Min, a lawyer and former stringer for the BBC, was sentenced to a 15-year prison term by a special court in the infamous Insein Prison in the capital, Rangoon, along with four other former political prisoners who also received lengthy prison sentences, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPPB), a prisoner assistance group based in Thailand.

Military intelligence officers arrested the five men in February for allegedly passing information to unlawful organizations outside of Burma, according to the AAPPB. The four others are Maung Maung Latt, Paw Lwin, Ye Thiha, and Yan Naing.

In 1989, Ne Min, who is also known by the alias Win Shwe, was charged with "spreading false news and rumors to the BBC to fan further disturbances in the country," and the "possession of documents including anti-government literature, which he planned to send to the BBC," according to official Rangoon radio. He was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor by a military tribunal near Insein Prison and served nine years.

Exiled Burmese journalists say that it is likely that Ne Min, who is thought to be in his mid-50's, continued to provide news and information to exiled and international news sources after his release from prison in 1998. The media in Burma are strictly controlled and censored, and most Burmese get their news from international radio.

The convictions came just 10 days before the opening of the National Convention, called by Burma's ruling junta to frame a new constitution as part of a so-called seven-step plan to democracy. The National League for Democracy, the main opposition political party, boycotted the convention, and visas to cover the event were not issued to foreign reporters. Local journalists say that the harsh convictions were meant as a warning and were part of an overall increase in intimidation and pressure on the press in Burma.

JULY 27, 2004
Posted: September 27, 2004

Lazing La Htoi, freelance

Burmese documentary filmmaker La Htoi, detained in Myitkyina, the capital of the northern Kachin State, for filming and distributing footage of extreme flooding that hit the region in late July.

La Htoi shot footage of the record floods with his personal video camera and then made 300 copies of the scenes on video compact disc for distribution, according to The Irrawaddy, a newspaper run by exiled Burmese journalists in Thailand. Local authorities arrested him on July 27 while he was copying the footage, and he remains in the custody of military intelligence, according to CPJ sources.

The Cyber Computer Center, where the copies of the video were made, was closed and ordered to recall all 300 copies of the footage before they could be distributed overseas, according to The Irrawaddy.

La Htoi, 47, runs a private printing house and has produced video documentaries for the Metta Foundation, a U.S.-based organization founded on Buddhist principles that is one of the few nongovernmental agencies permitted to assist in rural development in Burma. For the last 10 years, according to CPJ sources and the Southeast Asian Press Alliance, a regional journalists' group. Private video production companies are not allowed in Burma, which severely restricts press freedom and the distribution of information both inside and outside the country. However, foundations and other nongovernmental agencies are permitted to produce videos for educational purposes.

Burma's official newspaper Kyemon did not report any extensive damage resulting from the recent floods, according to The Irrawaddy, but La Htoi's video included footage of a dead body and an interview with a local resident citing as many as 50 casualties resulting from the flooding, according to CPJ sources.

Nine other journalists are currently behind bars in Burma, including documentary filmmakers Aung Pwint and Thaung Tun, who were arrested in October 1998 after working on a documentary about forced labor in Burma's rural areas.

Posted: September 22, 2004


The bimonthly current affairs journal Khit-Sann closed after its official publisher decided to stop publication "due to some financial problems," according to Agence France-Presse. Under Burma's restrictive licensing laws, private publishers are obliged to lease licenses from government agencies. Khit-Sann's editor, Kyaw Win, published under a license accessed through the Department of Parliamentary Affairs in Rangoon, sources tell CPJ.

Supporters of the journal charge that the government shuttered Khit-Sann because it covered international issues and U.S. political ideas, according to CPJ sources and Radio Free Asia. Burma's government denied the charges, citing the financial and licensing issues instead.

An unnamed Burmese media source interviewed by Radio Free Asia blamed military censors for the journal's demise. "Military intelligence decided they should stop publishing," he said to RFA. Another journalist affiliated with the journal told the Burma Media Alliance (BMA), a group of exiled journalists, that the head of the Press Scrutiny Board ordered the closure of Khit-Sann beginning September 1 without any explanation. The same journalist told the BMA that editor Kyaw Win was reprimanded by censors last month because Khit-Sann's editorial line was allegedly "pro-American."

Khit-Sann is a privately owned journal that began publishing in August 2003, featuring critical analysis of international affairs, economics, and ideas from political theorists including the U.S. writer Samuel Huntington, sources tell CPJ. Khit-Sann is translated as meaning either "Renaissance" or "New Age."

OCTOBER 22, 2004
Updated: October 29, 2004

First Eleven
7 Days
Myanmar News Gazette
Living Color
Myanmar Times
And several other publications

More than a dozen Burmese publications were closed after the Oct. 19 ouster of Prime Minister Khin Nyunt. Military authorities banned or suspended publications associated with Military Intelligence Services (MIS), which was previously run by Gen. Nyunt, according to CPJ sources and reports in the exiled Burmese media.

The banned publications, sources said, include popular news-oriented magazines and newspapers such as First Eleven, a news magazine; 7 Days, a weekly newspaper; and Myanmar News Gazette, another weekly newspaper. Living Color, a private magazine whose license was issued by Nyunt's son, was also shut down, and the weekly newspaper Myanmar Times was not distributed this week.

The official censorship body, the Press Scrutiny Board (PSB), is also being restructured, according to the Burma Media Alliance, a group of exiled Burmese journalists. The PSB is run by the Ministry of Home Affairs, and is monitored by Military Intelligence.

CPJ is investigating the reasons behind these developments, which appear to be connected with the downfall of the moderate Nyunt. All publications and organizations related to him and Military Intelligence are now apparently at risk of closure or restructuring.

Burma's authoritarian military regime runs the country with an array of security services including Military Intelligence. Overseeing news publications and licensing has been a way for the MIS to control the flow of information, while trying to improve the junta's image and, in some cases, make a profit.

Sources tell CPJ that Burma's new prime minister, Lt. Gen. Soe Win, appears to be consolidating power by taking control of news and information media inside the country. The banned and suspended publications are potentially lucrative as well.

Nyunt, appointed prime minister in August 2003, made several moves toward democratization and openness while in office. He proposed the so-called "road map to democracy," and took some steps toward freeing Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the opposition National League for Democracy party who has been under house arrest since May 2003.

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