Burma | Freedom House

Freedom of the Press

Burma

Burma

Freedom of the Press 2008

2008 Scores

Press Status

Not Free

Press Freedom Score
(0 = best, 100 = worst)

97

Political Environment
(0 = best, 40 = worst)

29

Economic Environment
(0 = best, 30 = worst)

28

The Burmese media environment remained among the most tightly restricted in the world during 2007, with conditions worsening in August and September owing to the authorities’ crackdown on prodemocracy demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. Burmese authorities warned local journalists to refrain from covering the protests, and many local publications did not cover the demonstrations, fearing retaliation. As many as 15 journalists were detained, and a Japanese cameraman was killed in connection with the protests. The current ruling military junta, which has been in power for 20 years, zealously implements a 1996 decree banning speech or statements that “undermine national stability,” and those who publicly express or disseminate views or images critical of the regime are subject to harsh punishments, including lengthy prison sentences. Other laws require private publications to apply for annual licenses and criminalize the use of unregistered telecommunications equipment, satellite dishes, computers, and software. Laws also criminalize the possession or distribution of videos that are not approved by state censors.

Private periodicals are subject to prepublication censorship under the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, which requires that all content be approved by the authorities. As a result, coverage is limited to a small range of permissible topics, publications are sometimes required to carry government-produced articles, and most publications are forced to appear as weeklies or monthlies. With the April 2005 establishment of the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD), under the control of the Ministry of Information, all publications were required to reregister and provide staff, ownership, and financial information to the PSRD. Under new censorship rules in effect since July 2005, media are ostensibly allowed to offer “constructive” criticism of government projects and are allowed to report on natural disasters and poverty, provided it does not affect the national interest. In recent years, however, there are also reports that the government has pressured private media outlets to publish articles critical of the opposition.

Both local and foreign journalists’ ability to cover the news is restricted, with conditions worsening following the eruption of demonstrations in August 2007. At year’s end, nine journalists were still imprisoned, including the well-known journalist U Win Tin, who recently turned 77 and has been in prison since 1989. On August 20, authorities banned journalists from photographing demonstrations, and on September 27, soldiers shot and killed Japanese cameraman Kenji Nagai as he attempted to record the protests. During the year, as many as nine journalists were forced to leave the country because of the repressive media environment. A few foreign reporters are allowed to enter Burma only on special visas; they are generally subject to intense scrutiny while in the country and in past years have occasionally been deported. Foreign journalists were unable to obtain permits to attend the national convention to cover the drafting of the constitution, and in September, many foreign correspondents found that their telephone lines had been cut. A number of Burmese journalists remain in exile; many work for Burma-focused media outlets in the neighboring countries of India, Bangladesh, and Thailand.

The government owns all broadcast media and daily newspapers and exercises tight control over a growing number of privately owned weekly and monthly publications. While official media outlets serve solely as mouthpieces of the state, private media generally avoid covering domestic political news, and the vast majority of journalists practice extensive self-censorship. Many nominally private outlets are owned by either government agents or supporters. A stagnant economy, increased prices for newsprint, and a limited market for advertising revenue (following a 2002 ban on advertising Thai products) continue to threaten the financial viability of the private press. Following the publication of a subversive advertisement in a state-run paper in August 2007, the government issued 28 new guidelines designed to tighten censorship of advertising. Authorities restrict the importation of foreign news periodicals; for several weeks after the outbreak of protests, publications such as Newsweek and Time, as well as several Thai newspapers, were not available. Although some people have access to international shortwave radio or satellite television, those caught accessing foreign broadcasts can be arrested, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. In December, the authorities raised the annual cost of renewing a satellite television license from about US$5 to US$800, far beyond the reach of most Burmese. Nevertheless, as the only source of uncensored information, foreign radio programs produced by the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia, and Democratic Voice of Burma are very popular.

The internet, which operates in a limited fashion in cities and is accessible to less than 1 percent of the population, is expensive, tightly regulated, and censored, with the government controlling all of the several dozen domestic internet service providers. Though relatively limited in their sophistication, the authorities employ filtering and surveillance technologies and actively engage in blocking access to websites run by Burmese exile groups and to international e-mail services such as Yahoo!, Hotmail, and Gmail. Beginning in early 2007, authorities banned a growing number of websites and proxy sites that enabled regime critics to circumvent official censorship and banned the video website YouTube in September. For a few weeks beginning in late September, the internet was virtually inaccessible owing to government controls, and authorities restricted internet usage to only a few hours per day in October and November.