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Local journalists free to travel but face other restrictions on cyclone coverage

(Mizzima/IFEX) - While journalists covering the impact of the deadly Cyclone Nargis, which hit Burma on 3 May 2008, face restrictions placed by the authorities, local reporters have more freedom to move around the country than their foreign counterparts.

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

"Journals are including pictures of devastated general cyclone scenes of Rangoon and Irrawaddy Division. But we cannot mention the insufficient aid for cyclone victims in delta regions and we are not allowed to publish close-up photographs of dead bodies in our journals," said an editor of a weekly journal, who asked to remain nameless since the junta punishes those who talk to the exiled and foreign media with termination of employment and even jail. Journalists risk getting their papers suspended, while citizens who tune in to BBC radio in public may be arrested.

Local journalists were also closely watched by the authorities and found it difficult to conduct interviews with survivors and take pictures of the scenes. They are only allowed to mention the death toll broadcast or published in official state media.

"If you are carrying a camera, some authorities come and ask some questions, and we can only take photos when they go away," said an editor who returned on 11 May from Kunchankone and Kawhmu Townships, near the former capital Rangoon.

A 12 May report ( ) by a Mizzima correspondent described the main road between the towns of Kunchankone in Rangoon Division and Dardaye in Irrawaddy Division - the country's worst hit - as being "lined with groups of people desperate for additional aid from private donors who drive in vehicles loaded with rice, water, food and medical supplies . . . As a truck or car stops along the route, crowds of survivors - often led by sprinting children - run to receive whatever assistance may be forthcoming. For a population in need, the people are remarkably well-behaved, for the most part waiting with discipline for their turn and refraining from physically impeding traffic that does not stop."

A young reader of a weekly journal said, "I just saw some general pictures of the devastation in Rangoon. I did not see pictures of dead bodies and the real situation of the delta, which people outside talk about."

The cyclone hit hardest the southwestern parts of the delta, where tens of thousands are dead and many more reported missing.

"I am not satisfied reading such general views of the cyclone in the journals," the young reader said of the local media, which must be vetted by government censors.

But some experts and analysts say that Burma has more media freedom than it did five years ago, when journalists were not allowed to cover natural disasters and crimes at all.

"The journals here cover as much as they can about the cyclone, but it is just enough as Burma has had no freedom of expression for many years," said the editor of a local magazine, who also asked to remain anonymous. "But they could not portray the actual situation of cyclone refugees in the delta and the detailed scenes in the regions."

People are angry with the government for not issuing a proper warning to the public about the approaching storm, the editor said.

"The villages would have been destroyed by the cyclone, but people should not have to die like that," the editor added. "They (the government) could have saved the people by moving them to other cities before the cyclone hit."

Worse still, in the aftermath of the cyclone, the junta has barely provided aid relief and has snubbed large-scale international relief efforts. Eyewitnesses report that people have had to help themselves in clearing the debris and coping with the trail of destruction left by the cyclone.

Updates alerts on the post-cyclone media restrictions:

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