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RSF releases report, "Burmese media combating censorship"

(RSF/IFEX) - 22 December 2010 - Despite many difficulties, Burmese journalists inside Burma and abroad have in recent weeks covered two events of great importance for the country: the 7 November general elections and Aung San Suu Kyi's release six days later. The military authorities sent contradictory signals about their intentions as regards media freedom. The undemocratic elections were marked by censorship, arrests of journalists and other obstacles, but Burmese newspapers were able to interview the various candidates during the campaign. The privately-owned media and foreign correspondents were initially allowed to talk about Suu Kyi's release, until more than 10 publications were disciplined by the Press Scrutiny Board and the surveillance of foreign reporters was stepped up.

The military junta and the members of the newly-elected parliament can now choose either to pursue repressive policies or to initiate a process in which more space is given to basic freedoms. We urge the Burmese authorities to seize the opportunity to respond to the various calls from neighbouring countries and ASEAN's secretary general for more freedom of expression.

The international community must also press the authorities to show more tolerance and must support the media inside and outside the country that are trying to push back censorship.

With the help of its partner organization, the Burma Media Association, Reporters Without Borders followed the work of the Burmese press and foreign reporters during the historic month of November. A Reporters Without Borders representative went to Burma before the elections to evaluate the situation. Despite the censorship, surveillance and obstruction, the Burmese media managed to offer their readers, listeners and viewers a variety of reports and analyses that has been without precedent since the 1990 elections. Reporters Without Borders also wanted to learn more about the impact in Burma of the so-called exile media, such as the Democratic Voice of Burma. A poll and a survey recently carried out in Burma confirm the popularity of the radio and TV stations that broadcast in Burmese from abroad. In the poll, 2,950 people in eight provinces were questioned about how they get their news.

The poll's main lessons are encouraging. They show how important it is for the international community to continue supporting Burmese media based abroad.

1. The Burmese, big media consumers

The poll provided strong confirmation that many Burmese, especially in urban areas, are big media consumers. The percentage of those polled who read print media (36%) is high for a developing country. Despite their poor quality, the official media, especially the broadcast media, are followed closely. The official television station, MRTV, for example, is watched "every day" or "often" by most of those polled. Of the 2,950 people polled, 2,188 watch the state television often. There are similar results for Myawaddy TV (the army channel) and MRTV 4 (a channel aimed at international viewers).

2. International radio stations, vital news sources

With 66.5% of those polled saying they listen "every day" or "often" to an international radio station, it is clear that the BBC, VOA, RFA and DVB play a fundamental role in providing the Burmese population with access to news and information. The Internet nowadays offers a new window on the outside world and a new space for expression, especially following the recent explosion of Burmese blogging. But the tradition of listening to radio stations is well-rooted and continues to be widely observed.

3. Satellite TV establishing its media share

The figure that reflects DVB TV's penetration is the percentage of those who watch it "every day" or "often": 66% of the total poll sample of 2,950 people. Only 351 have never watched it and 528 (20.2%) rarely watch it. DVB TV is watched almost as much as the state-funded over-the-air broadcast channels. Satellite TV has established itself as an essential and strategic vehicle of news and information in Burma. Even if the sale of satellite dishes is officially banned, there are many clandestine dealers and the authorities appear to turn a blind eye. DVB TV has established itself as a leader in its category. Its content and style are appreciated. It has viewers throughout the country. The international media are full of praise for DVB's professionalism and rely on its network of reporters and contacts to cover the situation in Burma.

The increase in the capacity of the foreign-based Burmese media, such as DVB TV, which managed for example to broadcast live election programmes, has been accompanied by similar developments on the part of the media in Burma. Several privately-owned media groups are reinforcing their operations, especially on the Internet, improving the form and substance of their publications and pushing back the limits of censorship. For example, both the Myanmar Times and Eleven Media Group invested additional resources in their election coverage.

Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association urge the Burmese authorities to:

1. End the system of sanctions, especially those defined in the 10-point code regulating the activities of the privately-owned media.
2. Abolish the system of prior censorship.
3. Completely overhaul the laws governing freedom of expression, especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505/B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 1923 Official Secrets Act and the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act.
4. Grant press visas to foreign journalists who request them.

Reporters Without Borders and the Burma Media Association urge the international community to:

1. Intercede with the Burmese authorities in order to obtain the release of imprisoned journalists and bloggers.
2. Press for the abolition of the prior censorship system.
3. Increase support for privately-owned Burmese news media and maintain continuous support for Burmese media based abroad, which are the main sources of news and information in Burma.
4. Establish training programmes for Burmese journalists.

To read the full report, click here

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