Burma's censors monitor Internet, newspapers - and poets
The regime has watched the media more closely since last September's uprising by monks.
Saw Wai is a Burmese poet known for his love songs. His eight-line Valentine's Day ode, about a brokenhearted man in love with a fashion model, was a particularly tender one. But there was one problem.Skip to next paragraph
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If read vertically, the first word of each line formed the phrase: "Power Crazy Senior General Than Shwe."
The senior general himself, head of Burma's (Myanmar's) military junta, could not have been amused. The head of the censorship board was urgently called to the capital; the weekly "Love Journal" has been shut down and copies of the offending edition were yanked from newsstands.
Saw Wai is now in jail, where apparently he will spend Feb. 14 in isolation, behind bars.
Extreme government censorship is as much a part of life in today's Burma as rice and pagodas. Everything from TV programs to newspaper ads goes through a rigorous vetting board. But the junta is fighting a losing battle against a population hungry for information, armed with tools ranging from transistor radios to sneaky editors and myriad ways to bypass blocks on Internet sites.
Since last September's monk uprising, the censorship has increased. And criticism of the ruling junta is not all that is wiped out – so is most bad news, including reports on natural disasters and defeats of the national soccer team. Even good news can be cut if it's about countries out of favor with the government.
Reporters Without Borders' (RSF) Press Freedom Index placed Burma 164th out of 168 countries last year, just ahead of Cuba, Eritrea, Turkmenistan, and North Korea. This year, the country might do even worse.
"The police and army continue to hunt for journalists and activists who photographed and filmed the [September 2007] crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations," RSF says in its January report.
All TV and radio stations in Burma are government owned. The same is true for the country's three daily papers, which routinely run front-page stories along the lines of "Maj-Gen Khin Zaw of Ministry of Defense inspected bridges on the railroad yesterday," or Maj- Gen Tha Aye of the Ministry of Defense attended a ceremony to broadcast fertilizers for summer paddy."
Far more popular than the dailies are the 80-odd privately owned weekly and monthly magazines here – which are read, according to the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) World Service Trust, by some 40 percent of the urban and 20 percent of the rural population. Yet these have to submit everything from their editorials to cartoons to a government censorship board before publication. Falling afoul of the board results in immediate punishment ranging from having the paper closed, to years of imprisonment (see sidebar story).
Very slow Internet access – which, in any case, is found only in the biggest cities – while cheap, is still a luxury for many. It, too, is under government control. Officially, all e-mails go through the authorized government-run Internet service providers, where detailed data on users is collected, and the mail itself is scoured, sometimes causing days of delays. Popular e-mail sites such as hotmail.com and gmail.com, along with foreign newspapers and a long list of other supposedly undesirable sites, are blocked.
Following last year's riots, all Internet access was cut off for three weeks. And, according to several Internet café owners, since then, they have been pressured to register the personal details of all customers and save screen images every five minutes on each computer – all of which could be demanded at any time by authorities.