Why did Burma deport a journalist reporting on press freedom?
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Why did Burma deport a journalist reporting on press freedom?

An Australian journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) news group was deported from Burma today after being arrested whilst covering a media freedom protest. The charge given was two-fold: that Angus Watson, who joined the organization recently, had been working in the country on a business visa, and that he’d been taking part in the protest. It’s the second major blow for DVB in the space of a month, following the one-year jail term handed to reporter Zaw Pe in April for “disturbing a civil servant” during an assignment in 2012.

There’s a bitter irony in the government’s decision to deport someone who at the time of arrest was covering a protest for greater press freedom – indeed the decision emphasizes exactly why that protest needed to happen. DVB has said explicitly that Watson was merely reporting, and not involved in the demonstration on May 7 – the video footage taken by his colleagues testifies to this. The two actions taken against DVB, a leading Burmese-run media group that is regularly critical of the government, and that until recently operated in exile, are among a number of recent signs that what appeared to be a promising media opening is now being constricted (several jailings of journalists have occurred recently).

It’s also no coincidence that the issues both Zaw Pe and Watson were covering happened in Magwe division. Journalists can operate relatively freely in Yangon, which is something of a showpiece for the reforms – rising tourist numbers, a burst of new construction, incoming western brands – but away from there things get more complicated. One of the major accusations leveled at this reform process is that while an economic transformation is underway, the same cannot be said for political freedoms (perhaps even that the former is distracting from the shortcomings of the latter). Moreover, that the progressive rhetoric of the government is simply not being realized on the ground, especially in more remote areas where local authorities continue to crack down on protests, confiscate farmland, and so on.

What the actions taken against Zaw Pe and Watson also signal is that reporting cannot be done where it is most needed – in the parts of Burma that have long been off the international radar, and where the reforms are yet to reach. For huge chunks of the country, particularly in the border regions, foreigners require prior permission before visiting, as this map shows. The upshot is that when, for example, reporters from the New York Times visited a town in northern Arakan state in March to report on allegations of a massacre by Burmese soldiers, they were promptly ordered out of town, leaving the scale of the incident shrouded in uncertainty, and conveniently so for Naypyidaw.

The government will respond that they did things by the book – Watson did not have the visa they stipulate he needed to  work as a journalist in Burma. But there are still major obstacles to attaining a journalist visa, given many journalists work freelance, while others are attached to organisations that the government hasn’t given full legal status to. The point is that journalism shouldn’t stop because a government is fearful of open reporting – paradoxically, that’s exactly why journalists need to think of alternative ways of going about their job and circumventing restrictions that a true democratic transition should be working to lift. In Burma’s case, those restrictions appear to be tightening again.