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JUNTA CONTINUES TO ATTACK MEDIA

Despite plans for a constitutional referendum in May and other promises of reform, the Burmese junta continues to crack down on the country's struggling independent media, say Mizzima News, Human Rights Watch and other IFEX members.

Two Burmese journalists are the most recent targets. Thet Zin and Sein Win Aung, the editor and office manager of the magazine "Myanmar Nation", were arrested on 15 February and are being detained without charge. Police carried out a search of their office and confiscated documents, including a copy of UN Special Rapporteur Paulo Sergio Pinheiro's report on Burma, and material on the September protests in Rangoon.

According to Mizzima News, the country's censorship board, the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division, has instructed the publisher to stop publishing the weekly journal.

"Burma's military regime has once again shown its intolerance toward different political viewpoints by arresting journalists who were doing nothing more than reporting news and opinions," says Human Rights Watch. "How can the Burmese authorities create even the semblance of a credible constitutional referendum in May when it won't allow journalists to report the news?"

In the wake of the September protests, the Burmese junta continues to arrest journalists and political activists. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 11 journalists are known to be detained in Burma, including 78-year-old U Win Tin, who has been in jail since July 1989.

Mizzima News reports that a blogger, Nay Phone Latt, who was thought to have disappeared in January, has actually been arrested and is being held under the Emergency Provision Act.

In another case, poet Saya Saw Wai was arrested on 22 January and is still in detention for his Valentine's Day poem that carried a hidden message that called the country's military ruler "power crazy."

The journalists and writers add to the more than 1,800 political prisoners who are still behind bars, says Human Rights Watch.

The latest harassment against journalists follows recent official edicts on the press. Human Rights Watch reports that the junta recently announced that all domestic copy, including work online, must be vetted by the Press Scrutiny Board.

According to the Burmese news magazine "The Irrawaddy", the junta has also banned reporters from covering a number of governmental meetings which, in the past, they attended.

Several Rangoon newspapers were ordered to publish government-written opinion pieces characterising the pro-democracy protests as a threat to national security, and journalists are banned from publishing at all if their stories are deemed critical of the military or expose human rights concerns, or are sympathetic to the opposition.

The junta has also reduced Internet speed and bandwidth, making it more difficult to send and receive high resolution images and large files. The government action hit many Internet cafés, which are one of the few ways citizens can get online access.

Human Rights Watch says the authorities are not interested in real reform, even as plans go ahead for a constitutional referendum in May. "The arrests of journalists and repression of access to information deny the Burmese people any real opportunity to debate the proposed new constitution," says Human Rights Watch.

Some Burmese observers are also cynical of the UN's role. The UN Special Envoy to Burma, Ibrahim Gambari, is in China, India, and other Asian countries this week to gather support for his efforts to foster political reform in Burma. But observers note that on previous visits Gambari has made little headway and has been virtually a prisoner of the government.

"Aside from earning him frequent flyer mileage on his Asian tours, Gambari's mission is as dead as Burma's pro-democracy movement," says the "The Irrawaddy".

Human Rights Watch is hoping the generals' backers in Beijing, Bangkok and New Delhi will be more successful in pressing the junta to respect human rights. In that vein, opposition activists are calling for a boycott of China's Olympics to pressure Beijing to stop supporting the Burmese military government.

Visit these links:
- IFEX Burma page: http://tinyurl.com/2voc8y
- Mizzima News: http://tinyurl.com/34jhaz
- Human Rights Watch: http://tinyurl.com/39fx57
- Human Rights Watch report, "Crackdown: Repression of the 2007 Popular Protests in Burma": http://hrw.org/reports/2007/burma1207/
- "The Irrawaddy", "Junta targeting Burma's press": http://www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=10518
- "The Irrawaddy", "Gambari's mission is dead in the water": http://www.irrawaddy.org/opinion_story.php?art_id=10498
(Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

(26 February 2008)

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