A report by a press freedom watchdog group, the Committee to Protect Journalists, says Burma is among the worst offenders in arrests of free-lance journalists worldwide.
The CPJ website reports 68 journalists were killed in the field this year, the largest number ever recorded by the group.
The CPJ also reports 136 journalists are in prison worldwide. China leads the pack, holding 24 members of the press in prison. While most of the working journalists being held in Chinese jails are also free-lance reporters, little attention has been paid to China’s southern neighbor Burma.
CPJ spokesman Andrew Levinson reports Burma is holding nine members of the press in jail. This is the second highest total in East Asia and the fifth largest worldwide according to the CPJ study.
Former ABC News Jerusalem and Moscow correspondent and Hoover Institution Fellow Bob Zelnick believes Burma is more than a dictatorship.
(Listen to the interview with Bob Zelnick here.)
“Burma is also a military junta which puts them in a special category regarding their narrow-mindedness towards dissent,” he said.
“Military dictatorships have run the gamut from some that aren’t very brutal but still exercise control. The Greek military states are in that category. There are those who have been brutal. Argentina and Chile are in this category,” Zelnick said.
“Burma is sort of a cross between the two. I think their record of massive killings isn’t as bad as some of the dictatorships in the world, but they’re not very tolerant of dissent.”
Mungpi Suantak is an editor at Mizzima News, a site dedicated to news in Burma and Southeast Asia. Suantak agrees with Zelnick that Burma doesn’t like opposition.
“It’s obvious that the junta does not want any press or journalists to write anything critical about their rule. Instead the regime wants to use them as a tool in spreading propaganda,” Suantak explained.
Zelnick said Burma’s isolation from most of the world also explains the ruling regime’s behavior.
“The isolation means that they’re not as influenced by world opinion as some dictatorships have been. The combination of the military and the isolation has a long history in Burma,” Zelnick said.
“It is almost as if Aung San Suu Kyi has become a barometer of which side of the bed the junta wakes up on on any given day. When making things more severe, they increase the restrictions on her. When they making them less severe she has a little bit more freedom,” Zelnick explained.
Suantak also believes Burma’s leading political dissident and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is a gauge of the regime’s direction.
“The military junta does not want the press to report on anything about their actions against Aung San Suu Kyi. Not only that, they do not want the press to report on the other abuses they are committing in other fields, including war against the ethnic in remote areas,” Suantak said.
Zelnick believes journalists in Burma don’t live in mortal fear, but the regime is quite proficient at suppressing press freedom.
“The Burmese suppression doesn’t gain as much worldwide oppression as mass murder committed by other regimes, but they do arrest quite a few journalists,” Zelnick said.
Suantak says journalists imprisoned in Burma are hard to count.
“It is extremely difficult to determine the exact number of journalists being detained in Burma … Currently, we believe there are about a dozen journalists, including about five freelance journalists lingering in prisons across Burma,” Suantak said.
The only exception to extreme restrictions is for media with major network credentials.
“There are slight exceptions for the major agencies, as they have the backing of their International organizations behind them. But that does not mean they are free to report anything they want. If they do so, the harassment might not come directly from the authorities but might come from street thugs,” Zelnick said.
While the communist Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, Zelnick, a former ABC News Moscow correspondent, said Vladimir Putin’s Russia still has a record of press repression.
“The Russians have shown that their primary objective is order. There wasn’t much order under Boris Yeltsin and that’s why I believe that the things evolved the way they did under the current regime. Some businesses have been taken away from the oligarchs and they’ve let the press know this is one guy who is not going to tolerate much in the way of dissent or antagonistic articles toward the government,” Zelnick said.
Since Putin’s rise to power, journalist Anna Politkovskaya has been murdered and other journalists have died under unusual circumstances.
On the Committee to Protect Journalist’s website, writer Kati Marton reports 16 Russian journalists’ murders have not been solved. Their deaths are mysterious, but Zelnick believes an accusing finger can’t specifically point to Putin’s government.
“We can’t make that accusation with respect to a single journalist. There’s obviously been a pattern of threats, brutal attacks and killings against journalists. It’s hard to imagine in the Russia of this period that things have happened this way without the knowledge of the former KGB man who was rapidly consolidating his power,” Zelnick said.
His reference is to Putin, the current prime minister, who Zelnick believes is “tailor made” for Russia.
“He didn’t revere the old order and he was a reformer and hoped that the transformation to a new system would occur. However, when Putin saw the economic and social order deteriorating under Yeltsin, he decided a much more firm hand had to guide the transition,” Zelnick explained.
“A lot of men have said that in the past, but once they assert authority, they don’t relinquish it very easily. It’s too easy and the results are too good and I think that’s happened to Putin. I don’t think he’s a likely candidate to lead Russia to a full democracy,” Zelnick said.
Zelnick says there are a number of nations where the brutality and oppression is worse than in Russia. One of those nations is Egypt.
Amnesty International’s Geoffrey Mock said Egypt is very repressive of all types of journalists.
“Egypt has arrested dozens of journalists, which includes journalists and even bloggers. They’ve harassed many more, but they’ve focused on internal journalists. The foreign press can’t be touched to some extent, but the bottom line is that the government is threatened by internal action,” Mock said.
Egyptians rationalize their repression, said Zelnick.
“The excuse is that we’ve lived under Nasser and we’ve seen what happens in neighboring countries when extreme religious factions gain control, so we’re going to exercise enough authoritarian power to prevent an even greater loss of freedom,” Zelnick said.
“I’ve been in Egypt many times and if Obama succeeds at making Egypt in turning Egypt into a more democratic state, there’s a fair chance the Muslim Brotherhood might take over. There’s a fair chance their relationship with Israel would sour and there’s a fair chance the whole Nasserite alliance would come slowly back,” he said.
Amnesty International’s Mock believes the Egyptian government is wary of the Egyptian people.
“The foreign press can make a difference on individual cases, but it’s what happens inside the country that is of most concern to the Egyptian government. And it is policy. They have tightened restrictions on the press, restrictions that we believe violate the freedom of the press, but which give a legal framework to their pattern of harassment and arrest,” Mock said.
Zelnick said the Egyptian power elite maintains power by keeping their own in office.
“The prevention of any real reform and the fear of what will happen if there is any real reform is because the people who would run for office are in their heart of hearts a bunch of thugs and demagogues,” he said.
And press reform is lacking because those in power have a lot to lose.
“What the current government is getting out of press repression is the muzzling of civil society. Civil society is the one force that most seriously challenges the government’s ability to maintain power,” Mock said.