The Situation

Before the 1962 military coup, Burma enjoyed one of the freest presses in Asia. Even after the coup, journalists pushed the envelope of censorship, risking lengthy prison terms to report the truth.

Today, in addition to state media organs, Burma has an estimated 300 to 400 privately published journals. As well, many media activists work in exile from offices in neighbouring Thailand, Bangladesh and India. As Burma opens up to the world, press freedom remains a key demand of democracy advocates. The head of Burma’s Press Scrutiny Board recently indicated that press censorship may be on its way out (read about it in The Irrawaddy).

Journalists in jail

An unknown number of journalists are in Burmese prisons, according to the Committee to Protect Journalist. In October 2011, state authorities released five journalists from prison. Then on January 13, 2012, nine more were released.  Shortly before the latest releases, the Southeast Asian Press Alliance compiled the following list of detained journalists and writers:

Hla Hla Win, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporter. Organization: DVB news. Prison term: 27 years (since 2009). Convicted under: Section 33(a) of Electronics Act, Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act, Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act. Case: Arrested for interviewing monks. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Min Han, poet. Sentence: 11 years (since 2008). Convicted under: Section 4 of Law No. 5/96, Section 505(b) of Penal Code. Case: Arrested for giving assistance to 88-Generation Student Group and All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) during 2007 September Saffron Revolution. He also led the Poets’ Union. RELEASED JAN. 13, 2012

Nay Phone Latt, aka Nay Myo Kyaw, blogger. Prison term: 12 and half years (first sentenced to 20 years which was later commuted by eight years) (since 2008). Convicted under: Section 505(b) of Penal Code, Section 32(b) and 36 of Video Law, Sections 33(a) and 38 of Electronics Act. Case: Arrested for posting online a caricature of then military leader Than Shwe. RELEASED JAN. 13, 2012

Ngwe Soe Lwin, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporter, recipient of Rory Peck Awards. Prison term: 13 years (since 2009). Convicted under: Section 33(a) of Electronics Act, Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act. RELEASED JAN. 13, 2012

Nyi Nyi Tun, aka Mee Doke, “Kandaryawaddy News Journal” editor-in-chief , poet. Prison term: 13 years (since 2010). Convicted under: Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act, Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act, Section 505(b) of Penal Code and Section 6(1) of Wireless and Telegraph Act. Case: Arrested after the October 2009 bomb blasts in Rangoon.

Sithu Zeya, DVB photojournalist. Prison term: 18 years (since 2010). Convicted under: Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act, Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act. Case: Arrested for taking photographs at X2O water festival pavillion when three hand grenades exploded on April 15, 2010. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Thant Zin Aung, photojournalist. Prison term: 10 years (since 2008). Convicted under: Sections 32(b) and 36 of Video Law, 33(a) and 38 of Electronics Act Case. Arrested for helping Cyclone Nargis victims. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Win Maw, musician, DVB reporter. Prison term: 17 years (since 2007). Convicted under: Section 505(b) of Penal Code (Instigating and disrupting public order and State security), Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act, Section 33(a) of Electronics Act. Case: Arrested for recording a song written in honour of Aung San Suu Kyi on her birthday, and also accused of having contact with exile news agency DVB. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Zaw Thet Htwe, reporter. Prison term: 11 years (since 2008). Convicted under: Section 505(b) and 295(a) of Penal Code, Sections 33(a) and 38 of Electronics Act. Case: Arrested for helping victims of Cyclone Nargis. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Zayar Oo, reporter. Prison term: 7 years (since 2009). Convicted under: Section 505(b) of Penal Code. Case: Arrested for distributing pamphlets with 88-Generation Students calling for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. RELEASED Jan. 13, 2012

Zeya, aka Thargyi Zeya, writer. Prison term: 13 years (since 2010). Convicted under: Section 17(1) of Unlawful Associations Act, Section 13(1) of Immigration Emergency Provisions Act, Section 33(1) of Electronics Act. Case: Arrested in connection with the explosion of three hand grenades in front of X2O water festival pavillion at the Rangoon Water Festival on April 15, 2010. RELEASED JAN. 13, 2012

Freedom of expression in Burma

Although Burma’s journalists have been subject to draconian censorship in recent decades, journalism, literature and political commentary have been part of Burmese life for a much longer period. In the old days, comedy acts, plays and scholarly religious debates were the main vehicles of expression. With the arrival of the modern printing press, in 1873 King Mindon issued a decree guaranteeing press freedom for “the benefit of the citizens to hear general news from Europe, India, China, and Siam for enriching their thoughts and improving their trade and communication.” Under British colonialism, attempts to restrict press freedom were met with fierce resistance from independence leaders like Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi. The struggle against censorship became part of the anti-colonial movement, and remains front and centre in Burma’s political struggles today.

Read “They Cannot Stop Us”: Burma’s Information Revolution by Patricia W. Elliott.

Burma Government Statement on Press Reform in Burma – March 2012

Burma versus Myanmar

‘Breaking Open Burma’ uses the term Burma, rather than Myanmar, the country’s official name since 1989. This is out of respect for members of the exiled community and political dissidents who rejected the new name. Why? As author Bertil Lintner notes, although some scholars feel ‘Myanmar’ and ‘Burma’ are linguistically one in the same, pronounced differently, the act of re-naming was seen by many as an attempt to strengthen central control and suppress cultural diversity. This is because the re-naming exercise didn’t stop at the national level, but carried on to local towns and villages as well, replacing traditional ethnic-language place names with Burmese-language names.  Additionally, some activists argued that officially renaming the country so soon after the brutal 1988 crackdown was a thinly-veiled attempt by authorities to distance themselves from past misdeeds. In this context, many dissident journalists prefer to use the term ‘Burma,’ a word they feel is less controversial and more widely accepted by their audience.

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