Report on fossil finds? Burmese censors say no.
A popular weekly recently had one-quarter of its stories rejected out of hand. Editors don't ask why.
RANGOON, BURMA — Over at the headquarters one of Burma's (Myanmar's) most popular weeklies, the editors have just received their mockup paper for the coming week from the country's censorship board.
Twenty out of 80 stories are completely rejected, crossed out in thick blue marker, and dozens more require significant changes. Within two days, the staff now needs to redo the layout, fill in the blanks, and dash to re-report and rewrite.
A brief on the opening of a new technological college has been nixed (it has not yet appeared in the official news), as has a wire story about a new fossil found in France (President Nicolas Sarkozy, and any good news about France, were banned after Sarkozy called on businesses to freeze investment in Burma.)
A cartoon depicting a crow standing at a blackboard, used to illustrate a story about rural education, is also crossed out. The editor and publisher scratch their heads – it's unclear what's wrong with it. "Sometimes, they just don't understand something, so they get nervous and censor," shrugs a third man, whose sole job is to maintain the paper's relationship with the censorship board.
Angering the censors is not recommended. Nor is getting in the middle of an interministerial miscommunication by mistake. Last month, Myanmar Times ran a report of minister of information Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan official announcement of an upcoming huge increase in satellite TV fees. The censors passed it but were soon berated by – the minister himself. Myanmar Times found itself shuttered, and senior correspondent Win Kyaw Oo was fired.
It's not the first time Myanmar Times has been shut in recent months. In July, it ran an advertisement placed by a Danish satirical art group posing as "The Board of Icelandic Travel Agencies Ewhsnahtrellik." When read backward, the Danish-looking word "Ewhsnahtrellik" spelt out "Killer Than Shwe" (Burma's senior general).
In October, a sister paper's coverage of a new outbreak of bird flu precipitated another shutdown, even though the outbreak was announced by the government agency responsible for dealing with it.
But brief suspensions, even getting fired, are far from the worst punishment being meted out by the junta.
Zin Linn, a former editor of a weekly here, spent from 1991 to 1998 in Burma's infamous Insein Prison for penning and running a series of articles on human rights. His wife was fired from her job at the museum, his daughter forced to leave medical school. Today, he lives in exile in Thailand, working for the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma.
"They arrested me at midnight, and I was convicted by a military court, without any lawyer by my side," says Linn. "Then, for seven years I was in solitary confinement. No sunshine. No one to talk to. All my hairs fell out. And for what?"
According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 15 journalists have been arrested since September, several on charges that they merely spoke with foreign media.
A Burmese rapper was thrown in jail last month, accused of paying tribute to the monks at a concert, as was a popular blogger, whose whereabouts remain unknown. One journalist, Win Tin, has been held since July 1989.