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Burma seeks global support for press freedom

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Bangkok, Thailand -- Burma today is at an intersection. The incumbent military regime wants to maintain the status quo while the mainstream population desires a new chapter of change. People are demanding freedom of expression and association while the junta is stubbornly disallowing citizens their basic rights.

As a result, a majority of the people support the proposal of the National League for Democracy, put forth in a declaration on April 29 and proposing two conditions for the opposition party's participation in the 2010 election. The first is to amend provisions in the 2008 Constitution that are not in harmony with democratic principles. The second is to hold an all-inclusive, free and fair poll under international supervision.

The international community has urged the junta to release all political prisoners prior to the 2010 election in order to gain international support. For instance, Burma must release Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest and allow her to participate in a nationwide election, otherwise the vote will not be honored and U.S. economic sanctions will not be lifted, U.S. State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Scot Marciel warned after meeting her in Rangoon.

Marciel and U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell achieved no diplomatic breakthrough during their visit to Burma on Nov. 3-4. In addition to Suu Kyi, the two U.S. diplomats met Burmese Prime Minister General Thein Sein, opposition politicians, ethnic leaders and others. But they had no idea why they were not allowed to meet Burma's top dictator, Senior General Than Shwe, who has called all the shots so far.

According to some analysts, there has been no progress at all since the U.S. Special Mission's visits to Burma began. There have been more restrictions on media and civil society, more control on Internet users, more arrests, more political prisoners and more military attacks in the ethnic minority areas.

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If the junta is sincere about democratic reforms, the media must be free at the outset. Access to information is crucial to a healthy democracy. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

But in Burma, the political opposition as well as journalists and media personnel are under the strictest rules of the stratocracy. In most countries, journalists or media workers can do their jobs and live well. But in military-ruled Burma, it is very thorny and hazardous work.

Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was killed while covering the 2007 Saffron Revolution, and some citizen journalists are still in prison.

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According to the Burma Media Association and Reporters Sans Frontieres, at least 12 journalists and dozens of media workers including poets and writers are still in custody since the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis and the constitutional referendum in May 2008.

Some received long prison sentences, including the film director, writer and comic Zarganar and blogger Nay Phone Latt, while print journalists have been jailed for two to seven years. Saw Wai, a poet, was arrested in January 2008 for inserting a concealed message -- power crazy Than Shwe - in a Valentine's Day poem. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

The New York-based Committee for the Protection of Journalists "strongly condemned" the arrest on Oct. 28 of freelance journalist and blogger Pai Soe Oo, alias Jay Paing, reportedly a member of a Cyclone Nargis disaster relief volunteer group named Lin Let Kye, or Shining Star. CPJ called for his immediate release, saying his arrest undermined the Burmese junta's assertion of moving toward democracy.

"Burma's military regime claims to be moving toward democracy, yet it continues to routinely arrest and detain journalists," said Shawn W. Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Reducing international pressure should require demonstrable improvements in press freedom."

A freelance journalist, speaking under condition of anonymity, said that around 20 people, including entertainers, writers and press workers, have been arrested since the third week of October. According to an anonymous freelancer, there were arrests without warrants between Oct. 21 and Oct. 28, including staff members from the Voice, the Foreign News, the Favorite, the Pyi Myanmar and the Kandarawaddy journals.

He said he could confirm at least eight people, including four journalists, arrested by police and military intelligence officials at their homes. They included Khant Min Htet, a poet and the layout designer for the Ahlinkar Wutyi Journal; Thant Zin Soe, an editor of the Foreign Affair News weekly journal; freelancer Nyi Nyi Tun (alias) Mee Doke and Paing Soe Oo (alias) Jay Paing, a freelance reporter and blogger. The other four, Aung Myat Kyaw Thu, Thet Ko, Myint Thein and Min Min are students at Dagon University.

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The detained youths are members of Linlet Kyei, a group that helped survivors of last year's Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 140,000 people. The Linlet Kyei volunteer group was formed in early May 2008 and has over 40 members. Most are Rangoon-based reporters and young social activists. They help orphaned schoolchildren by providing them with textbooks and paying their school expenses.

Burma was at the forefront of press freedom in Southeast Asia before the 1962 military coup. As many as three dozen newspapers, including English, Chinese and Hindi dailies, existed between 1948 and 1962 under a civilian government. Journalists had access even to the prime minister's office and were free to set up relations with international press agencies.

The situation changed in 1962 when the military seized power. All newspapers were nationalized by the military regime, which established a Press Scrutiny Board to enforce strict censorship on all forms of printed matter including advertisements and obituaries.

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Zin Linn was born on February 9, 1946 in a small town in Mandalay Division. He began writing poems in 1960 and received a B.A (Philosophy) in 1976. He became an activist in the High School Union after the students' massacre on 7th July 1962. (more...)

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