Burma before and after Nargis

Where journalism is a living hell

IT IS Southeast Asia’s largest country in terms of land area, yet there is reason why Burma is unfamiliar to many people, even within the region.

For one, it has been isolated for the last few decades as a result of both Burmese and international actions. For another, press freedom is unknown in Burma, which means accurate and up-to-date information is hard to find — and report — even within the country itself.

Location map of Burma courtesy of U.S. State Department

In fact, this was largely why many people in Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta were caught by surprise when a Category-3 cyclone (code-name: Nargis) rampaged through their communities for about 10 hours last year.

The disaster that struck a year ago last Saturday claimed at least 140,000 lives and left 2.3 million homeless.

Burma’s 47-year military government had known about the cyclone several days before, but had failed to warn its citizens. At the height of the cyclone, few people outside of the affected areas had any inkling about the unfolding tragedy, with local television channels showing dancing and other entertainment programs. It was only hours later that the government-run television stations ran a brief news item about a storm that hit Rangoon, the former national capital.

RP, Marcos Era

Filipinos born after the 1980s have no experience of being under what it was like to have a government that controlled and manipulated what its citizens read and heard. But even those who do not know what martial law is or who Ferdinand Marcos was should only look toward Burma to see what it is like to have no freedom of the press and little access to information.

Indeed, the Burmese have taken to relying on outside news sources just so they could keep up with what is happening in their country, even though doing so can be costly, and in more ways than one.

Among their favorites are radio broadcasts by the BBC, Voice of America, and Radio Free Asia, all of which have Burmese-language programs. Since 2005, the Democratic Voice of Burma, based in Norway, has also been beaming television signals via satellite into Burma.

Over the weekend, the intrepid BBC made sure that the world would not forget Nargis and the Burmese junta; it ran a series of reports on Burma, including a most daring documentary on how Burmese folk endure hunger, land mines, and military reprisal in villages sympathetic to the Karen guerrillas.

Owning a satellite dish, however, would mean forking over serious money as subscription — as much as one million kyats (the Burmese currency), or the equivalent of US$1,000, in a country where the annual per capita income is said to be $280. Comments one Rangoon-based journalist in an interview in Bangkok: “The regime does not ban them… just made it impossible for the people to afford.”

Small market

Burma does have local journalists in both print and broadcast. In major cities across the country, stores and stalls have stacks of daily, weekly, and monthly publications. But there seems to be few, if any, buyers of these.

That may be because everyone knows each piece that appears in any local publication or broadcast has to be vetted by a strict censors board. Some magazines have even come out with entire pages blacked out while others have been forced to cancel certain issues altogether because the censors deemed the content too sensitive. In Burma, “sensitive” usually means anything that seems contrary to any official line or policy.

As a result, news coverage in that country is generally devoid of political developments, except for ribbon-cutting ceremonies and official government activities and announcements.

Burma has about 400 newspapers, journals, and magazines at the moment, most of them based in Rangoon, the former national capital. Five of the publications are state-owned, including the omnipresent New Light of Myanmar, a tabloid-sized daily.

The rest, which are privately owned, face political and financial struggles every single day. But most of them know how important their work is to the people of Burma. That’s why, says one Burmese journalist, “we try to get around all the rules for our readers.”

That, of course, is easier said than done, especially when journalists are constantly in the crosshairs of the military junta. Says Zin Linn, information director of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB)-East Office, in Bangkok: “They think journalists are key enemies of the military junta, (next to) the dissident politicians….so they (are) always catching the journalists.”

In early February 2008, for example, authorities arrested Thet Zin and Sein Win Maung, chief editor and manager respectively of the Rangoon-based weekly Myanmar Nation. Their publication’s offices were also searched.

Exiled media

According to Mizzima News, which is run by exiled Burmese journalists in Delhi, India, the two were later charged of violating section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Act because they were in possession of a report by UN Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro on the human-rights situation in Burma, as well as the book Unbreakable Union by ethnic Shan author U Shwe Ohn and video discs of the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Other laws that have been thrown at journalists and even bloggers to keep them in check are the Emergency Provision Act, which has a section that criminalizes the spreading of “false news,” and the Penal Code, specifically section 505(b) regarding “Crimes Against Public Tranquility.”

Publications that have refused to run propaganda are closed down, and journalists are harassed and intimidated at every turn. Some have even been detained and arrested simply for covering opposition figures or demonstrations against the junta.

Yet, Burma’s journalists have remained undaunted. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish journalist who has been banned by the junta from visiting Burma since 1989 because of his unflattering reports about its administration, says that his Burmese colleagues have simply learned the “skillful art of writing in a crazy way,” such as through literary pieces and cartoons that carry political messages.

Aung Zaw, a Burmese journalist now based in Chiang Mai, Thailand, agrees. “Cartoons or comic strips are very popular and attractive,” he says. “Some can be very clever and get away with it.”

Many, however, do get caught. Last November, poet Saw Wei was sentenced to two years in prison for “inducing crime against public tranquility” by way of a poem published in a local weekly. Reports say the first letters of the Burmese-language poem’s lines spelled out “”Power Crazy Snr. Gen.Than Shwe.” Than Shwe is the chief of the military junta.

Too many issues

Apart from the generals, there is a surfeit of other subjects to be scrutinized in Burma, courtesy of the way the military has run the country since 1962. For instance: Households experience chronic power shortages, leaving much of the country in almost permanent blackout, but the junta’s new capital in isolated Naypyidaw gleams with 24-hour electricity. For some reason, too, women workers have become staple sights in road projects while children as young as seven toil away in tea stalls, many with only food as their wage. Burma has also long been known as an AIDS hot spot.

But a straightforward report on any of these or something similar is bound to land one behind bars. Tired of dodging authorities, many Burmese journalists have elected to report on their country from far away.

There are more than 100 Burmese journalists now working in exile, mostly in Chiang Mai, Thailand. They fled from Burma after a crackdown following the 8888 Revolution (a student-led uprising that culminated on August 8, 1988) against the military junta.

“I myself am a persona non grata,” says Aung Zaw, who is editor in chief of the popular Irrawaddy magazine. “I cannot go back to Burma. I am forced to live in Thailand. From outside, we tell the story as much as we (can).”

Aung Zaw says he was jailed for a week in 1988, while his younger brother spent eight years in detention for participating in student demonstrations against the junta.

Irrawaddy magazine comes out in print, but is also online. It has become one of the most visited news websites on Burma and Southeast Asia. At the height of the Saffron Revolution, it had 20 million hits in a month, a phenomenal jump from its regular average of 80,000 hits per month.

Short on funds, staff

Aung Zaw says most of the Burmese media in exile are understaffed and underfunded. Yet while their apparent staying power is admirable, what is really remarkable about them is their army of sources within Burma itself.

“We have a lot of sources inside the country,” admits Aung Zaw. “We rely on the telephone, Internet, email…talking to sources. Some of our sources have been with us for 10 years, but some of them we don’t meet or have met just recently.”

“We are not disconnected,” he says. “Ideas keep flowing inside and outside Burma.”

This can only be an indication that while the Burmese themselves are left in the dark about much that is going on in their own land, many of them understand that the rest of the world needs to know as much as possible about Burma if they want to put a stop to the junta’s abuses. Thus, there are those who risking the ire of authorities and investing considerable sums just to get information out of the country.

Clearances required

After all, in Burma, to own a computer and other electronic devices capable of accessing outside information, one must first secure government clearance.

Too, Internet access is not only limited, but also has very prohibitive rates and highly controlled. A mobile phone’s Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) card, meanwhile, costs $1,500 to $2,000 each.

One senior editor in Rangoon theorizes that it is the younger generation that has become very creative in communicating with the outside world. “We have no (open) access to Yahoo, gmail, YouTube, and the like,” he says, “but everyone seems to be breaking the rules…they have secret access.”

Still, the information from Burma often comes in trickles. Or at least it seems that way to impatient editors at international news organizations. This has prompted some media companies to send their own reporters to Burma — itself a tricky operation, since Burmese embassies are quite strict with granting visa requests; anyone who identifies his or her occupation as “journalist” is turned down. Journalists who intend to make several visits to the country therefore tend to use aliases in their reports to avoid difficulty in securing visas for subsequent trips.

Deportation, death

Old Burma hands, though, say that any foreign visitor to the country is likely to be the subject of surveillance by authorities, and advise caution in talking to the locals and discretion in taking photographs.

“You just have to be careful who you are with, just use your common sense,” says a foreign photojournalist who has been in and out of Burma for the last 15 years and is now working on a photo book on the military junta. “Just don’t draw attention to what you’re doing.”

But the risks confronting members of the foreign media are obviously less compared to those faced by local journalists. According to one business magazine editor in Rangoon, the worst that could happen to a foreign journalist in Burma is deportation and seizure of photographs, discs, or printed materials about the country.

Then again, during one of the biggest of the monk-led rallies in 2007, Japanese photographer Kenji Nagai was shot and killed by a Burmese soldier. Nagai was working for APF Tsushin, a media company based in Tokyo.

It’s a situation that could test the resolve of anyone, but to the likes of Aung Zaw, it’s also one that highlights the role of media in society. “Without a free media,” he says, “a democratic society is incomplete.” What more for one under an autocratic regime.