Journalists in Myanmar remain among the most restricted and censored in the world despite promises by the country’s new rulers to implement democratic reform, an international media watchdog group said yesterday.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said in a report that media workers in the Southeast Asian nation are still under perpetual surveillance by authorities who monitor their movements, tap their phones and subject all privately run news publications to pre-censorship requirements so time-consuming they can only publish on a weekly — not daily — basis.
After half a century of army rule, Myanmar’s former military government organized elections late last year and handed power in March to a civilian administration. Burmese President Thein Sein said in an inaugural speech that the role of the media as a “fourth estate” should be respected.
However, “the government has made virtually no progress on press freedom” since then, the CPJ said. “Under Thein Sein’s elected regime, authorities continue to systematically harass, sanction and imprison journalists, particularly those who report undercover for exile-run media groups.”
Foreign observers said November’s elections were neither free nor fair and the main opposition party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi boycotted the ballot. Since then, authorities have suspended more than a dozen news publications and sentenced at least two media workers to long jail terms, the CPJ said.
The Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma says about 25 journalists are currently detained in Myanmar, 17 of them its own. Myanmar is also known as Burma, a term favored by exiles and dissidents, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
“The government’s promise of reform is welcome, yet censorship in Burma remains arbitrary, intensive and highly restrictive,” the CPJ’s Bangkok-based Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said. “Legal reform to ensure press freedom would lend much-needed credibility to the government’s claims of democratic change in Burma. Draconian laws restricting reporting must be abolished and imprisoned journalists must be immediately released.”
The government issued no statement on the report and its representatives could not be reached for comment. Myanmar’s regime has no permanent government spokesperson available to answer media queries.
Among the seemingly innocuous stories banned from publication by Myanmar’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Department were volatile fuel prices, Chinese land purchases and water shortages. One editor who published a story about cheaper mobile phone SIM cards without approval had his publication suspended for two weeks.
The CPJ said two of its staff members and a freelance reporter working for the organization were all denied visas to conduct research for its report — a common obstacle for foreign journalists trying to cover the country. Instead, the group interviewed seven Myanmar-based journalists and six working for media in exile — almost all of them requested anonymity for fear of reprisals.
Last week, the government unblocked foreign and local news Web sites that had been banned for years, including the BBC, Voice of America and exiled media outlets such as the Democratic Voice of Burma.
The move was welcomed by local journalists, but Crispin said the government can still detain anyone accessing the Web sites.