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Press freedom vital to credible Burmese reform, says CPJ report

(CPJ/IFEX) - Bangkok, September 20, 2011 - The Burmese government's internationally lauded reform rhetoric is contradicted by heavy censorship tactics that continue to make the country's media among the most restricted in the world, a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists has found.

"The government's promise of reform is welcome, yet censorship in Burma remains arbitrary, intensive, and highly restrictive," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative and the author of the report. "Legal reform to ensure press freedom would lend much-needed credibility to the government's claims of democratic change in Burma. Draconian laws restricting reporting must be abolished, and imprisoned journalists must be immediately released."

The report, based on CPJ interviews with journalists in Burma and those working for Burmese exile media, found that banned topics are still wide-reaching and that, to date, the new government has not acted to abolish or amend the highly arbitrary laws that restrict press freedom and punish deviation from official dictates. Since last year's elections, two journalists have been sentenced to prison terms of almost 20 years, and more than a dozen publications have been suspended for their news reporting.

A veneer of press freedom evident in the proliferation of privately owned and -run news publications is shattered by the fact that the newspapers are heavily censored and regularly forced to publish state-prepared news and commentary presenting government policies in a glowing light, local editors told CPJ. In November 2010, authorities forced some 500 Internet cafés - typically used by undercover exile reporters to file their news, pictures, and videos to outside media - to install closed-circuit cameras, screen-capture programs, and keystroke-logging software to monitor and store users' online activities. A ban on the use of flash drives in Internet cafés was imposed in May, two months after the current government took office.

CPJ's report includes recommendations to the Burmese government, the European Union, the United Nations, the United States, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and Norway. Burma, which is vying for chairmanship of ASEAN in 2014, should be deemed unqualified to lead the organization if it fails to make progress on press freedom. CPJ also urged the establishment of a U.N.-led commission of inquiry into war crimes, including the jailing and torture of journalists.

"Uncensored reporting from within Burma is crucial for assessing whether the government's promise of democratic reform is rhetoric or reality," said Crispin. "Until new freedoms take hold, exile media continues to serve as a vital source of credible, independent information on developments within Burma and should not be abandoned by donor countries."

The historically military-run Southeast Asian country held its first democratic elections in more than two decades in November 2010 and installed a nominally civilian government in March 2011. Since then, President Thein Sein has sought international recognition for the transition, urging the United States and European countries to drop their economic sanctions maintained in response to the country's abysmal human rights record.

The Burmese government's recent informal call for exiled dissidents to return was met with great skepticism by journalists interviewed by CPJ, precisely due to the lack of reforms. Nearly all of the Burma-based reporters and editors interviewed for CPJ's report requested anonymity due to fears of possible reprisal if their names appeared in a report critical of the government. Two staff members and a freelance reporter working for CPJ were denied visas to enter Burma to conduct research for this report. No reasons were given for the denials.

Click here to read the full report
Click here to see the video report
Click here for a list of imprisoned journalists

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