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CYCLONE'S DEVASTATION AGGRAVATED BY RESTRICTIONS ON INFORMATION

The tragedy of the cyclone that killed as many as 100,000 people in Burma and left up to a million others homeless was in no doubt made worse by the military's severe restriction on news and its failure to alert the public, say the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Mizzima News and other IFEX members.

According to SEAPA, the Burmese authorities failed to publicly report that the cyclone was on its way - despite Indian meteorologists having given Burma at least 48-hours' advance warning. A group of SEAPA fellows who were in Rangoon when the cyclone hit says the first warnings people received apparently came from exiled Burmese news groups and foreign radio broadcasts from Thailand.

"It is clear that Burma needs to open up not only to aid agencies, but also to domestic and foreign media," said SEAPA. "A transparent accounting of the damage wrought by the cyclone is crucial to ensuring that aid flows freely and efficiently, and reaches all communities affected by the disaster."

But Burma has the worst conditions for press freedom and access to information in Southeast Asia. All broadcasting systems are state-owned, the largest newspapers are controlled by government, and the rest of the media sector are operating under a strict censorship regime that has routinely discouraged or banned reporting on politics, social problems, and even natural and human-made calamities, says SEAPA. The Internet, too, is heavily restricted and monitored - more so after last September's crackdown on peaceful protests, the news of which reached the world largely through the Internet.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), foreign reporters have been denied visas to travel to the country to report on the cyclone's aftermath, a tactic used during last year's demonstrations.

Aid workers too have been kept out, says SEAPA. "When the military junta in Burma refused on Friday to accept relief workers into the country, its actions underscored a terrible reality: the ruling generals view independent information as more dangerous to them than Cyclone Nargis," SEAPA director Roby Alampay wrote in "The New York Times".

Though free to travel to the disaster sites, local journalists were not allowed to publish detailed photos of the dead bodies or report on survivors that were not getting enough aid, says Mizzima News.

Amid the chaos, the junta went ahead with a constitutional referendum on the weekend that aimed to entrench their hold on power, while brazenly turning cyclone relief efforts into a propaganda campaign.

State-run television continuously ran images of top generals, including junta leader Than Shwe, handing out boxes at elaborate ceremonies and providing assistance to affected citizens, reports the magazine "The Irrawaddy".

"We have already seen regional commanders putting their names on the side of aid shipments from Asia, saying this was a gift from them and then distributing it in their region," said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. "It is not going to areas where it is most in need."

The referendum seeks public approval of a new constitution, which guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats to the military and allows the president to hand over all power to the military in a state of emergency. IFEX members have repeatedly called the referendum and the constitution a sham.

Visit these links:
- SEAPA (see the latest on Burma by SEAPA fellows on the theme "Covering Burma"): http://www.seapabkk.org/
- Mizzima News: http://www.mizzima.com/
- ARTICLE 19: http://tinyurl.com/3rwg8z
- ARTICLE 19 report on humanitarian disasters and information rights (February 2005): http://tinyurl.com/4zdnzs
- CPJ: http://tinyurl.com/5xx52s
- "Firewall Fighters" (May 2008), CPJ report on the vital role of exile-run media in Burma: http://www.cpj.org/firewallfighters/index.html
- "IFEX Communiqué" on referendum (6 May 2008): http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/93359/
- Burma Campaign UK: http://www.burmacampaign.org.uk/
- "The Irrawaddy": http://www.irrawaddy.org/
(13 May 2008)

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