Watchdog calls for probe into crimes against the media in Burma
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Watchdog calls for probe into crimes against the media in Burma

Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter dated 16 July 2013 to Burmese President Thein Sein, who began a two day visit to France on Wednesday, calling for an investigation into the former military government’s crimes against the media since 1962.

Even though the organization was on a blacklist in Burma for more than 20 years, it kept a record of cases of journalists who were killed by the previous junta.  Some journalist-prisoners died as a result of torture they suffered in the junta-run prison system.

Reporters Without Borders says authorities announced the death of Ne Win, a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun, at a press conference on 14 May 1991 saying he had died in hospital from cirrhosis of the liver. The army had accused him of being an opposition supporter but he had never been formally charged or tried, the watchdog said.

One month later, on 11 June 1991, Ba Thaw, a famous writer and satirist also known as Maung Thaw Ka, reportedly died of a heart attack in prison, the authorities said.

Seven years later, in August 1998, Saw Win, editor of the Botahtaung daily, died of a heart attack in Tharrawady prison. In fact, as said by his relatives, he had not been receiving necessary medical treatment. He had been sentenced to ten years imprisonment in 1990.

The organization’s letter also said that in September 1999, Thar Win, a photographer with the government newspaper Kye-mon, died of liver cirrhosis at a detention centre under the military intelligence department. He was arrested because his newspaper had published a photograph of Gen. Khin Nyunt, the then military intelligence chief, alongside a report headlined “The world’s biggest crook.”

Moreover, photographer Tin Maung Oo, who often worked for the National League for Democracy (NLD), was struck hard on the head by the junta’s thugs while he was taking pictures of an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in Depayin on 30 May 2003. He died on the spot, the Reporters Without Borders mentions in its letter.

Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photographer and video journalist working for the Japanese news agency APF, was shot dead by a soldier at close range while in a crowd of demonstrators on a Rangoon street with his camera in his hand on 27 September 2007, during the Saffron Revolution.

According to the organization’s letter, Nagai death was unique as the scene was recorded on film and a witness for the entire international community to see. A Japanese embassy physician later confirmed that the bullet that killed him had hit his heart after entering through the chest, proving that he had been shot head on.

Hence, Reporters Without Borders urges President U Thein Sein to create a Commission of Inquiry dedicated to combating impunity for crimes against news providers since 1962. It says that Burma is now starting a new page in history and the process of democratization begun by his government will not be complete without an official effort to render justice for the victims of the previous military junta’s crimes.

The letter says, “The commission’s main task should be to investigate and, as best as possible, to establish the circumstances in which these six journalists died from 1991 to 2007. In addition to their deaths, journalists, media workers and bloggers were subjected to many other abuses by the junta, including arrest, violence, torture and hundreds of years in jail sentences handed down by courts on the military’s orders.”

“This commission’s goal should also be recognition of all the crimes against Burmese and foreign journalists and news providers since the start of the military regime, to be achieved by means of thorough documentation in which we are ready to participate,” it says.

Now the sitting President, Thein Sein was also the Prime Minister of the previous junta, and ought to consider the letter’s suggestions in favor of democratic change. If he does not he may not be regarded as a reformist president.

After the 1962 military coup, press freedom had no place in Burma.  Many writers and journalists were thrown into infamous prisons under the emergency security act created by the then military junta. Over the last fifty years, Burmese writers and journalists have called the PSRD censorship office the media secret-police.

The current government still needs to thoroughly improve the laws governing freedom of expression – especially the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Act, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505/B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, Internet Law (2000), Electronic Transactions Law (2004), the 1923 Officials Secrets Act and the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act.

Burma is ranked 169th out of 179 countries in the 2011-2012 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.