Reporting in ’spy state’ Myanmar is a daunting task

May 15th, 2008 - 9:17 am ICT by admin  

By Johanna Marten
Yangon, May 15 (DPA) They can allegedly be recognised by their sophisticated cell phones. Myanmar, a country ruled by the military for the past 46 years, is a spy state. Government agents lurk in every corner, and also in the hotels of the country’s largest city and main port, Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, where now many foreign journalists have gathered in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis. Reporters who attract too much attention are immediately taken to the airport and deported. Myanmar’s rulers have little regard for the concept of a free press.

Journalists making their way into the disaster area, which is closed off to foreigners, must anticipate considerable trouble. However, a few have managed to get in.

Myanmar’s citizens only can dream of unrestricted internet access or web blogs, and foreign journalists have to recognise how difficult it is to conduct research in a country without modern communications technology.

To “google” some information on a whim simply is impossible. Wikipedia’s entry on opposition leader and Nobel Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is still under house arrest, is blocked just like the CNN homepage, for example.

To take out a satellite phone or even a notebook raises suspicion. Webmail pages from providers like Yahoo or AOL also are blocked.

Local news media are not a reliable source to find out what really is going on in the country as they’re controlled by the state.

The state-run daily newspaper New Light of Myanmar, reminiscent of the party organ New Germany in former East Germany - only reports on a daily basis that the country is fully capable of dealing with the disaster.

A recent caricature depicted Cyclone Nargis and “saboteurs from within and abroad” as dark, shadowy figures.

The main headline last weekend was that junta leader General Than Shwe and his wife had dutifully cast their votes for the referendum on the new constitution.

This week, the newspaper published out-of-focus, black and white photos of junta members supervising the distribution of relief goods to survivors of the disaster.

How far the spying really goes is difficult to estimate, but journalists trade advice to research only very discreetly in order not to endanger local informants among the civilian population.

If they’re observed talking to foreigners they run the risk of being interrogated by government agents.

Taxi drivers often open up to inquiries if they’re alone in the car with a foreign journalist, and then start lambasting the government. They express their admiration for Suu Kyi, who they simply refer to as “the lady”.

The non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders (RWB) lists Myanmar as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists.

During last year’s monk-led protests, 15 local journalists were arrested because they dared to stray off the official standpoint in their reporting. One of them was arrested under suspicion of having given an interview to the dissident radio station Democratic Voice of Burma.

Japanese press photographer Kenji Nagai was shot dead while filming the demonstrations in Yangon last September.

But some journalists apparently experience runaway imaginations upon realising that they’ve ended up in an absurd, total surveillance state.

A CNN reporter advised his crew to follow him with shaky camera while he was racing down a dark staircase because he believed he was being pursued by some obscure individuals.

He had to move to a new hotel virtually every day, he claimed.

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