Power shortages and blackouts are nothing new in Burma. Nor are news blackouts. In early February, authorities detected bird flu in Sagaing and Mandalay divisions but the news didn’t appear in state-run newspapers or privately run journals until the middle of March. The government’s mouthpiece, The New Light of Myanmar, waited until March 16th to report the outbreak.
Why do the authorities wait so long to inform the public of such an important development that directly affects them? EDITOR’S NOTE
In news coverage of Burma, the country is, at times, referred to as "Myanmar," a name given to it by its military government in 1988, or as "Myanmar, formerly known as Burma." Journalists who have written for Nieman Reports, including this author, chose to use Burma as the country’s name, as do many news organizations.The reason for this particularly cynical form of censorship has to be the official fear of causing a panic. Yet fears of a serious health hazard aren’t the only reason for Burmese to stay glued to the broadcasts of shortwave radio stations beamed from overseas. The plain fact is that most Burmese have no clue what is happening in their own country.
In Burma, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD), once controlled by Khin Nyunt’s military intelligence officers, is now run by Information Minister Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan and a new director, Major Tint Swe, whose staff was increased to more than 100, some 60 of whom are charged with regularly monitoring the press. Despite changes at the top, there have been little signs of a relaxation of the PSRD’s draconian censorship regulations, which continue to stifle press freedom.
Critics of the regime are not wrong. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists branded Burma in its 2005 report on press freedom one of Asia’s most repressive countries for the media. In February, Reporters Sans Frontières issued an urgent report saying that the military government is tracking down people who give information to the international media. Indeed, the threat to journalists in Burma remains a very real one, and to practice journalism inside the country — as it is meant to be practiced — requires courage, not only by individuals but also by the news organizations that must decide whether to publish the information that solid reporting by their staff might find. On March 24th two photojournalists were sentenced to three-year prison terms for taking video and still photographs of the junta’s new administrative city in Pyinmana. Twelve journalists are among the more than 1,300 political prisoners in Burma.
Burmese Press in Exile
While some journalists inside Burma bravely continue to push the envelope, during the past decade Burmese-run publications in exile have flourished. Pro-democracy groups and journalists living in exile produce an array of print and online publications in English, Burmese and various ethnic languages. Many of these publications are based in Burma’s immediate neighbors — Thailand, India and Bangladesh — and many receive grants and other forms of assistance from international donors, chiefly in Europe and America.
Since the host countries of these exiled publications enjoy press freedom, these publications have been able to remain highly critical of the Burmese regime’s human rights violations and repressive nature. Even though the regime and its censorship board cannot put any direct pressure on these exiled publications, they are not without their troubles, and the work they do requires different kinds of courage to be demonstrated.
Increasingly, under the rubric of "constructive engagement," the governments of neighboring countries are forging closer trade relations with the regime in Rangoon.As bilateral ties between Burma and its neighbors strengthen, central authorities and local security officials in these countries have put more pressure on the editors of exiled publications. This has been the experience of The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based newsmagazine published since 1993. Run by Burmese journalists, including this correspondent, The Irrawaddy offers critical coverage of the Burmese regime and has exposed its close ties with neighboring countries, notably China, India, Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.
In the past, in response to "friendly requests" from the Burmese authorities, Thai security officials have asked exiled publications to shut down or relocate their offices for "security reasons." However, many continue to publish articles and editorials critical of the many questionable deals being struck between the generals in Rangoon and neighboring countries eager to do business with them.
Meanwhile, many exiled publications face pressure from other sectors of the exile community. Editors and reporters are often closely associated with political organizations or campaign groups. As a result, they tend to shy away from publishing critical commentary on the democratic opposition’s weaknesses and sometimes flawed strategies.
In this environment, The Irrawaddy, an independent publication not affiliated with any political organization, stands out in publishing editorials and articles that are critical of the opposition in Burma and abroad. The publication of such stories is not done to agitate or denigrate Burma’s ongoing "democracy movement," but to create healthy democratic debate, to restore a culture of tolerance and constructive criticism, and to educate the "democratic opposition."
While maintaining its critical stance toward the regime in Rangoon, the magazine often looks at and examines the opposition’s shortcomings, including its lack of transparency, accountability and effectiveness. Reporting on these sensitive issues is not easy. There have been threats and intimidation from some opposition groups that ostensibly espouse the democratic principle of press freedom, but argue that the time is not right to start putting it into practice. "You can write freely when the revolution is over" is their common refrain.
Criticizing opposition parties or prominent figures such as Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest in Rangoon, can provoke such a vociferous outcry from dissidents that some exiled journalists joke that their hard-hitting editorials could land them in prison once they are finally able to return to a "free" Burma.
Over the years, The Irrawaddy has not only questioned the accountability and transparency of the exiled opposition, but has also exposed atrocities, including extrajudicial executions of alleged infiltrators, committed by rebel groups along the border with Thailand. As a result of these reports, opposition and rebel groups now exercise greater restraint in their handling of suspected spies in their ranks.
While the reaction to our efforts to hold opposition groups accountable can take a toll on the morale of staff members, especially those with personal ties to politically active fellow exiles, The Irrawaddy remains committed to serving its readers. We encourage our reporters to pursue any line of inquiry that will yield information of value to the public, without regard for how political groups or governments might respond to their revelations.
Confronting Pressure From Donors
Burmese publications in exile must also assert their independence from other influences, namely the international donors upon which they rely for financial support in the absence of a sustainable business model. In the long run, some publishers and editors are concerned that this may prove to be the greatest challenge to editorial independence. Many Burmese publications in exile seek to diversify their donors, as they worry that depending upon a single source of financial aid makes them vulnerable to pressure from donors that take issue with the publication’s reporting or editorial policies.
The Irrawaddy is among those exiled publications that receive funding from several international donors from European countries and the United States. Without these generous contributions,The Irrawaddy and most other publications produced in exile would not survive for long. But grants from international funding agencies can also bring their share of troubles to publications operating in exile. An incident relating to The Irrawaddy can serve to illustrate the perils of relying on international donors.
In 2002, at a Burma Night panel discussion at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand in Bangkok, I came under fire from the former charge d’affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Rangoon, Priscilla A. Clapp, for allegedly condoning the attacks on the United Sates on September 11, 2001. (The charge d’affaires has been the highest-ranking U.S. diplomatic official in Burma since the United States downgraded its diplomatic ties with Rangoon in 1988.) Clapp, who was a guest of honor at the Burma Night discussion, was invited to make a closing remark on a panel discussion, which included this author.
She first praised the "very good journalism of The Irrawaddy" before she said, "I remind [the editor of The Irrawaddy] that he is highly supported by the American government, and we did notice his editorial in the Thai press saying that America deserved the attack on September 11." She continued sternly, "That does not go unnoticed in Washington."
Just after the September 11th attacks, I wrote an editorial on U.S. foreign policy that appeared on The Irrawaddy’s Web site, as well as in the Bangkok Post. This opinion piece was indeed critical of the Bush administration’s foreign policy, but did not say that the United States deserved the attack. Clapp apparently believed she was entitled to make this unwarranted and undiplomatic assault on me because I am the editor of a magazine that has been receiving grants from the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a Congress-funded organization. NED supports several Burma-related projects promoting democracy, human rights, and media development.
More recently, in March 2006, another Burmese media group, the New Delhi-based Mizzima News agency, was told by NED to retract an essay that claimed that it advocates violence. Mizzima pulled the article, but the damage was done. A radical campaign group known as Dictator Watch issued a statement criticizing NED, calling it the "National Endowment for Hypocrisy."
NED insists that it was not engaging in editorial interference when it called for the withdrawal of the commentary, but was merely taking action because Mizzima had violated one of the conditions of its grant agreement. (Under its charter, NED is specifically prohibited from funding groups that engage in armed struggle. Ironically, the chief editor of Mizzima was a former hijacker who commandeered a Thai Airways International plane to Calcutta from Bangkok in 1990.)
At home and abroad, Burmese journalists face sometimes daunting obstacles in their struggle to survive and preserve their editorial independence. Though the kinds of journalistic courage called upon in each circumstancediffer, without strongly adhering to the stance of independence neither entity will function as it should.
Aung Zaw is editor of The Irrawaddy, a magazine about Burma and Southeast Asian affairs, located in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand.