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CAPSULE REPORT: ARTICLE 19 urges UN to act; criticism of draft constitution will net harsh penalties; "Myanmar Nation" journalists charged

(ARTICLE 19/IFEX) - The following is an ARTICLE 19 press release:

Burma's 20th Human Rights Day: UN Called to Act

On the 20th anniversary of Burma's Human Rights Day, ARTICLE 19 reviews the current state of freedom of expression in Burma. The last few days have seen the end of UN Special Envoy Gambari's mission to promote dialogue and reconciliation between the regime and the opposition. ARTICLE 19 agrees with the many political commentators declaring Gambari's mission a failure and calls on the United Nations to immediately adopt a stronger stance on Burma.

"The United Nations has spent too long pussy-footing around with the Gambari softly, softly approach. The state of freedom of expression and human rights is now so acute that no less than immediate and affirmative action by the United Nations Security Council and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself will do," said Dr Agnès Callamard, Executive Director, ARTICLE 19.

The regime is now preparing for a referendum, likely to be held in May, on a new constitution leading to elections scheduled for 2010. The process however, has been deeply flawed by its utter lack of public participation and transparency. The constitution was drafted without public consultation. Monks, nuns, political prisoners and other prisoners will be barred from voting at the referendum. A ban has also been placed on "lecturing, distributing papers, using posters or disturbing the voting in any other manner." Criticism of the draft constitution may be punished by prison terms of up to 20 years. Clearly, the regime is making it known that a "no" vote will simply not be tolerated.

Meanwhile, the September 2007 crackdown continues into 2008, although incidents have been less frequent and often out of sight. A total block on the right to freedom of expression is one of the prime objectives of the crackdown. Since September, violations of freedom of expression have included:

- Further curtailment of the print media: Since the September protests at least 20 journalists have been arrested. Although most of them have since been released, the regime is coming down heavily on all interpretations of dissent. For example, in January, the Myanmar Times was banned for a week after going against the Censor Board's directive, when it published a story about the regime's decision to postpone the massive rise of satellite licence fees (from six thousand to one million kyat). The proposed rise seemed to have become particularly sensitive after it sparked international media coverage. Other publications have fared even worse. On 3 March, the editor and manager of the weekly news journal, Myanmar Nation, were charged under section 17/20 of the Printers and Publishers Registration Law. They were arrested on 15 February, after police searched the publication's premises. Police discovered footage of the September 2007 protests, and a Burmese copy of the report by United Nations Special Rapporteur for Human Rights, Paulo Sergio Pinheiro. The editor and manager face up to 7 years' imprisonment, if found guilty. The publication was also suspended from their arrest on 15 February until their charging on 3 March.

- Attempts to restrict information flow in and out of the country: Although Burma already censors the internet more than most countries, internet restrictions and surveillance have been further tightened since the September protests. Internet café managers are now forced to monitor their customers' internet usage with software provided by the Special Police Information Department. The monitoring results then have to be handed over to the department on a weekly basis. The regime has been conducting a proactive campaign to trace the citizen journalists responsible for recording and uploading footage and images of the protest to the internet. Fully aware of the dangers they risk, many bloggers avert the system and exercise their right to free expression. The stakes however are high. One prominent blogger, Nay Phone Latt, went "missing" in January 2008. He had been arrested by the police and was later charged under Article 5 (J) of the Emergency Act, a law often used to suppress political activists and dissidents.

- The international media are also feeling the impact of the paucity of information coming out of the country and report great difficulty in providing informed and accurate coverage. Broadcast journalists especially report the huge problems they face in getting footage out of the country.

Today, on Burma Human Rights Day, ARTICLE 19 renews its calls on the UN to convene an immediate UN Security Council meeting that adopts a strong resolution on Burma. The resolution must include a full arms embargo, targeted trade sanctions as well as the release of all journalists and political prisoners including National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The resolution must also call for a transparent, inclusive and fair process leading to the holding of truly democratic elections and the fulfilment of the right to freedom of expression.

ARTICLE 19 calls on UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon to show the United Nations' commitment to Burma by undertaking a mission to Burma himself to personally deliver the resolution to the Burmese regime.

Updates case of detained "Myanmar Nation" journalists:

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