Tuesday, 02 March 2010 19:19 Min Aung Naing
(A note from a correspondent living in Burma)
Sometimes a hunter becomes prey. Similarly Burma's news hunters can become a victim of the news and a reporter's jailing becomes the story.
Reporters from officially registered media in Burma must also be careful with their reporting. Of course it is more dangerous for the reporters and supporters of exile based media but it's not easy for the approved reporters to stay on the regime's good side.
All publications and periodicals in Burma have to be registered with the Press Scrutiny and Registration Board under the Ministry of Information and are subject to the board's tight censorship rules. It would be a big problem if news that the regime doesn't want disclosed is printed so all of the official papers are very cautious.
Staff at officially registered media organizations must learn to operate under Burma's strict censorship system. Often they are very familiar with the name and position of the person responsible in a certain government department who has veto power over what gets published about their sector. Before an article on a particular government department is published the publisher must ensure there is no objection from the censorship board or depending on the importance of the topic someone from the department itself will act as a kind of second censorship board.
Some government ministries send letters to the censorship board in advance requesting that there be no news about their ministry. The censorship board if it wants can ask the ministry for an explanation; of course newspapers or journals do not have the same right to ask why the story will be censored.
News or interviews which cannot get passed the censorship board therefore must be published or broadcast by exile media.
According to journalism ethics, prior to an interview a reporter should state his name and the organization that he is from. For reporters working for exile media inside Burma, following official journalism rules will land them in jail. If the person being interviewed is a member of the public then he or she can simply refuse to answer and end the interview by walking away. If however the person interviewed has ties to the military, they can easily have a reporter sent to jail.
Sometimes reporters in Burma cannot continue to cover a particular story and they have to transfer all of the sources and information they have to their colleagues outside Burma. The reporters in exile can then pick up where the first reporter left off and attempt to directly contact these sources inside.
There are many obvious dangers that undercover reporters working for exile based media face. When covering a story we often have to weigh the risks posed by trying to get the news and whether it’s worth the risk to go after a particular story. Is it worth exposing ourselves to grave danger for a particular story; is the story of national importance that our fellow people must know about? Weighing the pros and cons of risking our lives for a particular story can be more difficult than actually covering the story itself. Sometimes we have to consider the long term interest and stop ourselves from being foolish and too daring. But not taking any risk would mean there would be no story at all.
We have to avoid being exposed to protect our sources and the undercover lives of our fellow reporters. We therefore have to limit ourselves from risking too much. We have to keep a low profile and work secretly. But our editors and bosses sometimes complain they haven't received enough reports from us. They might think we are lazy and are getting a salary without actually doing work. We then have to explain our situation to our bosses and editors.
People in Burma pose with smiling faces when foreigners take their photos however they become nervous when we take photos for our news reports. Taking photos of governmental departments or army personnel is even harder. So the undercover reporter must learn how to take photos secretly. If you are found taking photographs at the scene of a fire or something important, you will have to answer to the authorities. If you cannot prove that you are with a registered and approved news group then you will be sent to jail.
The prejudice that military dictators have against journalist is understandable. Even under the regime's tight censorship and harsh control, news of major events like demonstrations against rising prices, strikes, the saffron revolution and cyclone Nargis are quickly spread to the outside world. It is the journalists that regularly expose the regime's brutal and inhumane nature.
Official reporters from registered foreign news agencies in Burma have to be on good terms with the junta officials. Despite their best efforts some of them may end up being questioned for a whole day at an interrogation centre and have their equipment confiscated.
Even the official reporters of domestic registered agencies are jailed for drawing the ire of the regime. Of course the undercover journalist is in far greater danger. If they are found by the authorities, they will certainly face very long prison terms.
I once heard that police from the Police Special Branch (SB) have to monitor all the news posted and broadcast by exile opposition media and present their findings to their senior officers.
The undercover reporter therefore must be careful not to be turned into prey by Burma's other news hunters.