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CAPSULE REPORT: Twenty years after 8888 Uprising, local media continue to defy military regime, shows SEAPA report

(SEAPA/IFEX) - The following is a 6 August 2008 SEAPA capsule report:

A review of Burma's media struggle on the 20th Anniversary of 8888

August 8, 2008, marks the 20th anniversary of an important and tragic people's uprising in Burma that resulted in the killing of an estimated 3,000 people, the exile of thousands more, the jailing of hundreds, and the overall deterioration of human rights, democracy, and governance in the military-ruled country.

Since the people's uprising of August 8, 1988 - popularly referred to as "8888" - political space has been severely limited inside Burma, aggravated from a situation that was already restrictive. Along with thousands of activists and dissidents, journalists, writers, and artists have faced severe sanctions for works displeasing to the country's ruling junta. The most prominent of these opinion leaders, journalist and activist U Win Tin, in July 2008 marked his 19th straight year in prison, languishing in confinement for an even longer period than Burma's most famous democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, despite his widely reported failing health.

As Aung San Suu Kyi represents the public face of the overall struggle for democracy in Burma, U Win Tin, now 79, personifies the suppressed and tortured voices of Burma's people. Of thousands of dissidents jailed, including dozens of Burmese writers, artists, and journalists fined, sanctioned, disciplined, arrested, detained, and/or ultimately imprisoned since 8888, about a dozen journalists and bloggers are still currently in prison.

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In recalling the 20th anniversary of "8888," and in understanding the state of its media, it is important to remember that Burma actually had a long and proud tradition of a free press. Burma's rapid media development in the 19th and 20th centuries flowed from its strong tradition of literacy and education. The country's first newspaper, the English-language "Maulmain Chronicle", appeared in 1836. In 1873, King Mindon enacted what is believed to have been Southeast Asia's first indigenous law guaranteeing freedom of the press. He gave journalists freedom to report any wrongdoing by the royal family, judges and mayors.

In fact, by the time it gained independence from Britain in 1942, Burma had 39 newspapers: 21 in Burmese, seven in English, five in Chinese, two in Hindi, and one each in Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil, and Telugu. Burma expert Bertile Lintner notes: "By political affiliation they were of three types: pro-government, opposition leaning to the right, and opposition leaning to the left. The government and the Parliament were dominated by one party, and in the absence of any real political opposition, the newspapers functioned as public watchdogs."

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On March 2, 1962, army chief Gen. Ne Win seized power and the Burmese military has been consolidating power ever since. The 1962 Printers' and Publishers' Act required that all publications be approved by a censors board. This law is still in force. In 1966 the authorities banned all private newspapers and stopped registering Chinese- and Indian-language newspapers. Printing from then on has only been authorized for Burmese- and English-language publications. Meanwhile, the 1975 "Memorandum to all Printers and Publishers Concerning the Submission of Manuscripts for Scrutiny" banned the publication of: anything detrimental to the ruling Burmese Socialist Programme Party and its policies; anything detrimental to the ideology of the state; anything detrimental to the socialist economy; anything which might be harmful to national solidarity and unity; any incorrect ideas and opinions which do not accord with the times; any descriptions which, though factually correct, are unsuitable because of the time and circumstances of their writing; any obscene (pornographic) writing; any writing which could encourage crimes and unnatural cruelty and violence; any criticism of a non-constructive type of the work of government departments; the libel or slander of any individuals.

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After the uprising of August 8, 1988, thousands of dissidents fled across the borders, primarily to Thailand but also to India, China and Bangladesh. Inside the country, the military arrested journalists including U Win Tin, and introduced:

- Martial Law Order 8/88 (1988), which bans any "activity, literature or speeches aimed at dividing the armed forces."
- Martial Law Order 3/89 (1989), which makes it a criminal offense to publish any document without prior registration with the Home and Religious Affairs Ministry.
-The Television and Video Act of July 31, 1996, which compels owners of TV sets, videocassette recorders and satellite dishes to obtain a license from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs. It also requires that permission be obtained for the public screening of imported videos (and now DVDs).
-The Computer Science Development Law of September 20, 1996, which requires permission from the Ministry of Communications, Posts and Telegraphs before any computer equipment or fax machines can be bought, imported or utilized. Violators face up to 15 years' imprisonment.

Rules on Internet use and access further control peoples' access to cyberspace, and chill users and providers alike from distributing and accessing news and information independent of what is sanctioned by government.

In the aftermath of 8888, there are now basically three types of media catering to the Burmese people: the heavily-censored media inside the country; the media in exile that is aimed at the exiles and people living in border areas; and the foreign broadcasting stations, which are the only outside media able to reach deep inside Burma.

Inside the country - and mostly only in the former capital of Rangoon - there are some 400 newspapers, journals and magazines. Save for the five owned by the state, all these private publications struggle to survive economically and politically. They must navigate an uncompromising and tedious censorship regime while scrounging for advertising in a stifled and politically sensitive market.

Outside Burma, exiles have set up news agencies, sending out updates though newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, and web-based media, in Burmese, English, and the ethnic languages the junta has since banned from mass media.

Most people rely on the Burmese-language services of foreign broadcasters like the British Broadcasting Corp., Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Also broadcasting in Burmese are All-India Radio, Radio Thailand, China Radio International, the Voice of Malaysia, NHK Radio Japan, and a Christian radio station based in the Philippines.

The Democratic Voice of Burma broadcasts in Burmese and in seven ethnic minority languages. In May 2005, DVB launched a TV station broadcasting via satellite into the country. It remains the only Burmese-operated broadcasting operation that beams television signals straight into the country.

Taking advantage of thousands of satellite dishes set up by both legal and black market operators in Rangoon, and even of a 1% Internet penetration rate among the Burmese people, these foreign and exiled news groups exploit an inevitability in the flow of information in the digital age. Moreover, this situation underscores the desperation of Burma for news unfettered by government controls.

The 20th anniversary of the 8888 uprising is an occasion on which to remember that the Burmese people remain hungry and defiant in their need to know the true story of their troubled nation. The plight of their journalists and media since August 8, 1988, and episodes like the Saffron Revolution of September 2007 and Cyclone Nargis, which hit in May 2008, underscore how the Burmese people remain desperate for free, independent, reliable news and information, and how the world must find ways to assist them in their continuing struggle.

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The Southeast Asian Press Alliance is a coalition of press freedom advocacy groups from Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. Established in November 1998, the network aims to unite independent journalists and press-related organisations in the region into a force for the protection and promotion of press freedom and free expression in Southeast Asia. SEAPA is composed of the Alliance of Independent Journalists (Indonesia), the Jakarta-based Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information (ISAI), the Manila-based Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, and the Thai Journalists Association.

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