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Burma's Media Remain Under Tight Government Control in Reporting on Constitutional Convention - 2004-05-19

Hundreds of Burmese are gathered at a convention to draft a new constitution, but news reports on their efforts are being tightly controlled by the military government. Recent court rulings highlight a dangerous climate for Burma's journalists.

Burma's military government is showing few signs of easing tight control over the media during the constitutional convention that began Monday.

Journalists are even more worried than normal, after the country's courts recently cracked down on reporters and others accused of providing information to foreign aid organizations.

Aung Zaw, editor of the independent newsmagazine The Irrawaddy, says journalists in Burma have recently told him of additional pressures they faced in the build up to the convention.

?Over the phones, they express their fear and their anger, their frustration of working as a professional journalist inside the country,? he added.

The military government says the convention is to draft a new constitution, and is part of a seven-step plan toward full democracy. But it has been widely criticized as meaningless because the main opposition group, the National League for Democracy, is boycotting the gathering.

The military refused to let the league take power in 1990 when it won national elections, and has kept tight control on all opposition since.

The government controls all broadcasters and newspapers in Burma, and military censors view all stories before they are published or aired.

Aung Zaw says Burma's journalists are intimidated by such cases as Ne Min, a journalist and lawyer who spent eight years in prison accused of "spreading false rumors." He was arrested again in February, and earlier this month was sentenced to 15 more years.

In another recent case, student activist Nyan Htun Linn was sentenced to 22 years for distributing a statement criticizing the convention procedures.

A law passed by the government in the late 1990's - Law Number 596 - aims to control political debate, with 20-year jail sentences for those found guilty of violating it.

Although there is considerable international interest in the constitutional convention, very few foreign journalists are allowed in Burma to cover it.

?In terms of press freedom it shows there is no improvement in the sense that before the national convention most of the foreign journalists who tried to go to Burma were not allowed to cover the convention and see what is happening in the country,? says Vincent Brossel, who is with the professional organization Reporters Without Borders, in Paris.

Mr. Brossel says international pressure can be effective in easing rights abuses, as shown when a Burmese court recently commuted a death sentence imposed on Zaw Thet Htway, and ordered him to serve three years in jail. The reduced sentence followed pressure from international rights groups.

Zaw Thet Htway, the editor of a Burmese sports magazine, was arrested last year after his magazine reported on alleged misuse of grants to promote football in Burma and on fines a regional football organization imposed on a Burmese team.

Three men who had had contact with the International Labor Organization also had their sentences reduced to three years after facing the death penalty, in part, because of ILO efforts.

?In this case the international pressure was very high because [of] the International Labor Organization," said Vincent Brossel from Reporters Without Borders. "We consider that three years just for sending information outside is still very harsh, but in some ways half a victory for the international organizations.?

Aung Zaw, from The Irrawaddy, says the situation for the journalists in Burma remains very bleak.

?A lot of reporters, editors say they are very careful about talking about, about making comment on the national convention. But despite all the facts they are very courageous, they are trying very hard to send a message across,? he said.

Analysts and journalists say that if the government is serious about allowing democracy, it should start by repealing the media control laws, and allow full coverage of the constitutional convention.