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Published by Jutta Pflueg
Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2010
23 January 2010
Southeast Asia’s Press Freedom Challenges for 2010
23 January 2010

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Published by: Jutta Pflueg on Jan 25, 2010
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Polls in 2010 shape Burma’s political and media landscape23 January 2010All eyes are on Burma as it heads to national elections in 2010. Even asadvocates, activists, and citizens of Burma debate whether or how to participatein the exercise, one clear consensus is that Burmese media—both inside the countryand those exiled in neighboring countries and elsewhere—must be supported in theirefforts to educate Burmese citizens as well as monitor the credibility andintegrity of the polls, or potential lack thereof.To be sure, with the junta's voiding of the elections in 1990 and the iron gripwith which the country, its citizens, and their media have been managed sincethen, the upcoming polls do not inspire much optimism. Hardly anybody would callthe exercise free, not even with the cautious support of western governments andASEAN. Meanwhile, the main opposition group, the National League of Democracy(NLD) which was denied its clear victory in 1990, had announced that it willboycott the elections if the junta continues to keep Aung San Suu Kyi and otherpolitical prisoners detained. All the same, some political parties have expressedtheir intention to participate—from administration groups, to the opposition, eventhird force organizations made up of activists from the 1988 uprising.All the same, without a clear and unfettered role for independent media coveragebefore, during, and after the elections, all will be for naught.If 2009 is anything to go by, there is indeed every reason to keep expectationsreal.In May last year the junta ordered strict control of all news coverage of thefirst anniversary of Cyclone Nargis' devastation of the Irrawady delta. CycloneNargis, which pummeled Burma on 2 May 2008, left about 140,000 dead or missing and2.4 million people devastated.The censorship board ordered that coverage of the anniversary should have apositive angle. It also restricted and banned stories that highlighted the reliefefforts of international and local non-governmental organizations.Related to this, there was a rash of arrests and intimidations of journalists,bloggers, and activists in 2009, all having to do either with the anniversary ofCyclone Nargis, or that of the Saffron Revolution in 2007.Going after bloggersA blogger was arrested in November 2009 and remains detained. Prior to that, poetand layout designer for the Rangoon-based "Ahlinkar Wutyee Journal" Khant MinHtet, was picked up by the police on 22 October 2009.Blogger and former journalist Pai Soe Oo, 23, was arrested on 28 October 2009. Twodays earlier, Thant Zin Soe, the Burmese translator-editor of "Foreign Affairs"weekly was nabbed by authorities. The two are members of "Lin Let Kye" ("ShiningStar"), a volunteer group that helps victims of Cyclone Nargis. Also arrested werefive of their colleagues.On 1 December 2009, authorities released Khant Min Htet, Pai Soe Oo and Thant ZinSoe and other Cyclone Nargis volunteers.During the same period, blogger Win Zaw Naing, 24, was arrested and now faces apossible 15-year jail sentence for posting pictures and reports about theSeptember 2007 Saffron Revolution. He is detained in the Rangoon district ofKyauktada, where he has not been allowed to see a lawyer.
Heavy-handednessThat same heavy-handedness was also clearly being directed in anticipation ofgreater media coverage and interest in the upcoming elections. On 12 September2009, U Win Tin, a senior leader of the opposition National League for Democracy(NLD) party, and who had spent 19 years behind bars until his release in 2008, wasagain taken in for questioning by the police.The veteran journalist wrote a critical article on the junta, entitled, "Anelection Burma's people don't need". It was published in the 9 September 2009issue of the "Washington Post". He was released after a few hours of questioning.But Burma’s censors and military kept on with a campaign of intimidation.Just before the year ended, on 31 December, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) videoreporter Hla Hla Win was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment for violation of theElectronic Act. She had earlier been sentenced to seven years imprisonment underSection 51 of the Export Import Act for allegedly using an illegally acquiredmotorcycle.Such, therefore, was the consistent messaging of the junta as 2010 rolled in. Noteven the commutation of a staggering prison sentence slapped on comedian and poetZargana (from 59 years to 35 years), or the release of four journalists (from asymbolic batch of 7,000 prisoners, most of whom were jailed for common crimes),could mask or blunt the harsh actions of the junta in 2009.Beyond its consistent contempt for journalists and the press, the junta has madeit clear that neither will it tolerate protests. For that matter, the electionsitself—for all its presumed inevitability—is still shrouded in uncertainty. Arequired election law to govern the exercise has yet to actually be promulgated,and even as 2010, people were not sure as to when the polls will actually takeplace.Many Burmese journalists are genuinely surprised. Although all have been livingwith strict censorhip and under harsh laws for decades, one local editor said they"expected that press freedom would be curbed to some extent after the 2010 generalelections but not before it."But the Burmese junta clearly has things planned out. In 2009 it effectivelyprevented Aung San Suu Kyi from again taking part in the 2010 elections, wheneverthat may be. Aung San Suu Kyi's detention was supposed to end on 27 May 2009,making her available for candidacy in the 2010 elections. But a bizarre incidentinvolving the sudden and apparently uninvited visit of an American citizen in herprison home was all the junta needed to extend the opposition leader’s housearrest, and thereby bar her from taking part in this year’s elections.More controlMeanwhile, the junta in 2009 also stepped-up its control of the Internet. Learninglessons from the Saffron Revolution on what new media can do, the government cameup with new policies to shorten the leash on all forms of new media.Internet café managers were warned not to use proxy software to circumvent onlinecensorship, or else risk closure. Those caught in the act of opening e-mailaccounts for clients run the risk of having their operations shut down.It has also been reported that infrastructure have been put in place to slow downInternet signals on demand, thus limiting the kinds of activities, files, and

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