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Government warns against reportage on commodity prices; newsrooms tense amidst continuing crackdown; photojournalist arrested

(SEAPA/IFEX) - Official censors in Burma have warned editors against tracking commodity prices in line with staggering fuel price hikes, SEAPA contacts inside the country say. Amidst a continuing crackdown on protesters and oppositionists who have risen up against a doubling of fuel prices in the space of a month, Burma's military government has also been keeping an already restricted media on an even shorter leash.

One editor of a local publication told SEAPA that during the week of 27 August 2007, some journals were warned by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Department (PSRD) against reporting commodity prices, especially in the context of rising fuel costs. Even prior to the protests that broke out in mid-August, local business journals were already forbidden from printing graphs that would more easily illustrate climbing costs for commodities such as fuel, rice, and sugar. Some papers, therefore, make do with publishing weekly lists of prices, leaving it to readers and consumers to interpolate trends, validating their own day-to-day experiences in Burma's markets.

The recent protests, however, have apparently compelled the government to further monitor this compromise practice.

Meanwhile, a Rangoon journalist told SEAPA that on 27 August Minister of Information General Kyaw San personally advised editors and managers of Burma's state-monopolised radio and television programmes to be "extra careful" with their news reporting.

The editor of a popular local journal said self-censorship has inevitably compounded more overt censorship and pressure from the government. Private journals - of which there are hundreds in Rangoon - are steering clear of covering the protests directly, the editor said, knowing that the PSRD will not let any such reportage pass, and worry that even attempting to allude to the developments could intensify the monitoring of their papers.

Indeed, foreign and local journalists have been repeatedly reminded not to go near any demonstrations.

Sources said Military Intelligence (MI) agents on one occasion warned a Japanese video journalist not to take out his camera as he anticipated a gathering crowd of protesters. He was reportedly told agents had been authorised to assault people taking photographs. At another event near the US embassy where a one-man protest was taking place, two local journalists were about to take out their cameras to take pictures when an MI agent approached and said, "That won't be good for you. So put away your cameras".

Intimidated by all the government harassment, many editors have reportedly set their own guidelines, which, among other things, disallow the use of office cameras for the coverage of protests. Some journals have also reportedly advised their staffs that, should they choose to cover the events, they will have to do so as individuals and freelancers, as their offices may not be able to take the consequences of government reprisal.

Since the start of these rare public protests in Burma, hundreds of protesters and activists have been arrested, and there have been numerous reports of journalists being harassed for covering the events. Reporters and photographers have reportedly been harangued by thugs unleashed by the government.

On 28 August, photojournalist Win Sai was reportedly arrested as he was taking photographs of an alms donation event in Rangoon's Shwe Dagon Pagoda, which was organised by the National League for Democracy (NLD). Win Sai, a freelance journalist who also happens to regularly document NLD activities, is reportedly being held at the Kyaik-ka-san detention center, a SEAPA source said, although information has been difficult to gather on his detention.

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