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Burma's junta pays no heed to Freedom of Expression

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Zin Linn

Reporters from private journals and periodicals in Burma were inadmissible to be present at a press conference of a United Nation's special envy to Burma held before his departure on 28 November evening, according to sources in Rangoon.

The UN special envoy to Burma, Vijay Nambiar, spoke to foreign reporters inside the international airport in Rangoon at 5 pm. Mr. Nambiar was at closing stage of his two-day visit in which he met with both junta's officials and recently released democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

According to media sources, security personnel did not allow almost two dozens domestic correspondents with official press identifications to go into the airport. However, members of the Rangoon foreign correspondents club were allowed to be present at the press conference.

Reporters who were denied access included staff from The Myanmar Times, 7 Day, Venus, The Voice, True News, Weekly Eleven and other news journals.

As said by sources, the military junta's Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) informed the journalists about the press conference and it will announce time and place later. But, it was likely a trick for PSRD never gave information on that press conference.

Finally, on the last minute, the matter leaked out and some journalists reached at the airport. Even though, security staff stopped the reporters at the doorway of the press conference. Actually, it is nonsensical action of the authorities as the journalists have their IDs with them. Attending a press conference must be a basic right for the media personnel.

In Burma, not only the political oppositions but also journalists and media personnel are under the junta's strictest set of laws. Journalism is hazardous work. People still bear in mind that Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai was killed in the 2007 Saffron Revolution. Several citizen journalists are still in prison.

Looking back into the near past, The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemns the 13-year prison sentence handed down on October 13 by a Burmese regime's arbitrary court to Nyi Nyi Tun, editor of the Kandarawaddy news journal.

On October 13, a township court attached to Rangoon's notorious Insein Prison found the journalist guilty of "crimes against the state". He was convicted of violating the Unlawful Associations, Immigration Emergency Provisions and Wireless Acts and other laws, according to a source in Rangoon.

"The bogus charges and harsh sentencing of Nyi Nyi Tun make a mockery of the ruling junta's professed transition towards democracy," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "A free press is essential to a functioning democracy -- a reality Burma's journalist-jailing junta still hasn't grasped."

Burma's junta deems journalists as its harmful enemy after the dissident politicians. Media is often targeted during periodic crackdowns on opposition. Further arrests of journalists cannot be excluded. Journalists based in Rangoon say the detentions were part of a continued crackdown by the military authorities on those involved in the mass anti-government protests in September 2007.

Win Maw, a 47-year-old activist and rock musician, has been serving a 17-year sentence for his journalistic activities since November 2008.

A military-controlled township court in Burma has handed down a 20-year jail term to freelance reporter Hla Hla Win, a young video journalist who worked with the Burma exile broadcaster "Democratic Voice of Burma" based in Norway, as the ruling junta continues its crackdown on the free press. She was arrested in September 2009 after taking a video interview at a Buddhist monastery in Pakokku, a town in Magwe Division, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres and the Burma Media Association said in a joint statement. For that she was given a seven-year prison sentence in October.

In an additional case, the Special Court in Insein prison sentenced reporter Ngwe Soe Lin to a 13-year sentence in prison under section 33(a) of the Electronic Act and section 13(1) of the Immigration Emergency Provisions Act on Jan. 27, 2010 for allegedly attempting to smuggle information to exiled media, according to prominent Rangoon lawyer U Aung Thein. Ngwe Soe Lin was detained in a Rangoon Internet cafà on June 26, 2009 and accused of working for the Norway-based opposition radio station Democratic Voice of Burma.

Burma has sentenced severe prison terms to scores of activists, monks, student leaders and journalists for their suspected responsibilities in the 2007 September protests and for helping victims of Cyclone Nargis in May 2008. Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962, and its aggressively controlled state media often accuses foreign news organizations of stirring trouble the country's internal affairs.

It was remarkable that an announcement dated 18 October was made by the chairman of Burma's Union Election Commission (UEC). It says no media or photography will be permitted inside or around ballot stations on Election Day. As a result, it was unavoidably to see vote-rigging and various frauds in the daylight on last November 7, 2010.

A former Major General and Judge Advocate General in Burma's armed forces, Thein Soe later became the Deputy Chief Justice and then was appointed as chairman of the UEC. In last October, Thein Soe made the UEC announcement at a press conference in Naypyidaw.   According to Rangoon-based journalists who attended the press conference, Thein Soe declined to respond questions candidly related to press freedom.

Burma has more than 150 privately-owned newspapers and magazines but they are all subject to pre-publication censorship by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division. PSRD is run by military officers. This kind of censorship is virtually unique in the world and prevents the emergence of any editorial independence.

Paris based Reporters Sans Frontià res (RSF) ranks Burma 174 out of 178 countries in its 2010 press freedom index.

Burma was at the vanguard of press freedom in Southeast Asia before the 1962 military coup. The country then enjoyed a free press; censorship was something unheard of. As many as three dozen newspapers, including English, Chinese and Hindi dailies, existed between 1948 and 1962.

On the contrary, Burma stands downgraded from a free state to a prison state. All news media in Burma is strictly censored and tightly controlled by the military - all daily newspapers, radio and television stations are under supervision of the junta.

Some media related people and some politician have a dream prior of the recently held 7-November election that there may be a space for them in the upcoming parliaments. But, Freedom of speech for potential members of parliament in Burma has been restricted under laws made by the incumbent military junta.

The forbidden laws announced on 26 November in an official gazette also set a two-year prison term for any protest staged within the parliament compound. The laws, signed by junta Chief Senior-General Than Shwe, stipulate that parliamentarians will not be allowed freedom of expression even in their respective chambers.

Hence, there will not be a space for not only parliamentarians but also for journalists to practice freedom of expression under the upcoming so-called elected regime.  

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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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