Burmese journalists came under heavy assault in August and September when covering pro-democracy street protests and the military government’s retaliatory crackdown, marking significant deterioration in what was already one of the world’s most repressive media environments. The government banned coverage of the uprising and sought to isolate the nation by impeding Internet and phone service. Local and citizen journalists, however, proved innovative and persistent in circumventing the government’s electronic blockade.
The ruling State Peace and Development Council’s decision in mid-August to remove fuel-price subsidies sparked angry protests across several Burmese cities, including thousands-strong marches in the former national capital, Rangoon. The demonstrations grew into a massive antigovernment movement soon after soldiers used force against protesting Buddhist monks in the religious town of Pakokku on September 6. On September 27, during a march by monks and citizens, a soldier shot and killed Kenji Nagai, 50, a cameraman for the Tokyo-based video and photo agency APF News. Plainclothes police and soldiers arrested six other journalists and assaulted several more.
The Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), the state body charged with censoring the local media, imposed a late-August blackout on local news coverage of the protests. Several local newspapers ceased to publish altogether after the Information Ministry demanded they run government-written opinion pieces characterizing the pro-democracy protests as a threat to national security.
Recognizing that electronic communication threatened to expose the crackdown, authorities tried to control or cut off means of communicating with the outside world. On September 8, the Directorate of Military Engineers assigned staff to the main national telecommunications complex in Rangoon to monitor journalists’ communications, according to information received by the Burma Media Association, an exile-run press freedom advocacy group. By mid-September, authorities had cut the telephone services of several Burmese journalists, including those who worked as stringers for exile-run and international news organizations. Those affected included Agence France-Presse reporter Hla Hla Htay and freelancer May Thingyan Hein, who received a 2007 Knight International Journalism Award for her exemplary reporting.
Authorities also slowed connection speeds and imposed rolling Internet blackouts, often in late afternoon to coincide with the time journalists usually tried to file their stories. A Reuters photographer had his cameras confiscated by police on August 23 after he attempted to take pictures of plainclothes officials detaining a group of protesters, according to media reports.
Despite the junta’s attempt to black out the news, local and citizen journalists managed to send via the Internet reports, images, and video clips of the protests and government crackdown to Burmese exile-run and foreign news organizations. These local and citizen reporters used proxy servers and proxy sites to send news reports, thus circumventing government-administered e-mail blocks. Burmese exile-run publications, including the Democratic Voice of Burma, Mizzima News, and The Irrawaddy, carried in-depth news and images of the protests provided by anonymous stringers based inside the country. Irrawaddy Editor Aung Zaw told the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on November 7 that his news site received as many as 100,000 visitors daily at the height of the crisis. The government said in September that anyone discovered cooperating with exile-run media risked a 20-year jail sentence on subversion charges, according to a news report by the Democratic Voice of Burma.
The brutal crackdown reached a low point on September 27, when Burmese troops opened fire on demonstrators in Rangoon, killing 10 people according to government estimates, and many more according to diplomatic sources cited in news reports. Nagai was among those shot and killed while he was filming near a group of demonstrators in downtown Rangoon. Video footage of his murder later released by Japan’s Fuji News Network showed that Nagai was pushed to the ground by a soldier and shot at near point-blank range. He died almost instantly of his injuries. In protest, Japan suspended some of its foreign aid programs to Burma. The United Nations, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and many Western governments condemned the junta’s onslaught against its citizens. The United Nations pursued mediation aimed at reconciling the military government with the pro-democracy opposition, while the United States imposed a round of financial sanctions aimed at specific junta members.
Authorities detained more than 3,000 people over the course of the crackdown, which continued into October. Six journalists were arrested, one of whom was still being held when CPJ conducted its annual census of imprisoned journalists on December 1. The detention of freelance photographer Win Saing, who was being held on undisclosed charges, brought the total number held by the government to seven, earning Burma the dubious distinction of being the world’s sixth-leading jailer of journalists. U Win Tin, the former editor-in-chief of the daily Hanthawati newspaper, served his 18th year of a 20-year prison term on trumped-up antistate charges. The 77-year-old reporter has suffered at least two heart attacks while in prison and is one of the longest-serving jailed journalists in the world.
Despite calls from CPJ and others, U Win Tin was not among the 3,000 political prisoners released in a New Year’s amnesty on January 3. The authorities did, however, release 2004 CPJ International Press Freedom Awardee Thaung Tun, an editor, reporter, and poet widely known by his pen name, Nyein Thit. He was sentenced to eight years in prison in October 1999 for producing unauthorized video documentaries that included footage of forced labor and impoverished rural areas.
Censorship of the media was pervasive, with no improvement since CPJ ranked Burma as the world’s second-most censored country, after North Korea, in a May 2006 special report. All editorial and advertising content still required approval from the PSRD, a time-consuming and often arbitrary process that forced nearly all Burmese newspapers and periodicals to publish as either weeklies or monthlies. On May 21, Aung Shwe Oo and Sint Sint Aung, local journalists working for Japan’s Nippon News Network, were detained outside Rangoon while covering the docking of a North Korean ship suspected of delivering arms to the junta. The journalists were released on May 23 after undergoing two days of interrogation by local police.
Journalists were banned from reporting favorably on detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi or critically on the junta and its policies. Ross Dunkley, editor-in-chief of the Myanmar Times, the country’s leading local-language publication, which is run in cooperation with the government, told CPJ in May that PSRD authorities censored about 20 percent of the stories he submitted for publication. He said that included many innocuous articles, including straight news pieces about the construction of a parliament building in the new administrative capital outside Pyinmana.
One subversive advertisement, which ran in the English-language edition of the Myanmar Times, slipped by government censors. The Denmark-based satirical group Surrend placed the ad in the paper’s July 23 edition to promote tourism among Scandinavian travelers; a Danish-language segment, read backward, said “Killer Than Shwe,” a reference to the junta’s leading general. In response, the PSRD issued a new ban on all foreign-based advertising in local news publications.