Reporters Without Borders has written an open letter to Burmese President Thein Sein, who begins a two-day visit to France tomorrow, calling for an investigation into the former military government’s crimes against the media since 1962.
Reporters Without Borders
President U Thein Sein
Republic of the Union of Myanmar
16 July 2013
Dear President Thein Sein,
On the eve of your first visit to Paris since you became the Republic of Myanmar’s president, Reporters Without Borders would like to draw your attention to the former military government’s crimes against professional journalists, bloggers and cyber-activists who provide news and information. The aim of this letter is to request the creation of a Commission of Enquiry dedicated to combatting impunity for crimes against news providers since 1962.
Two years have passed since the creation of a national commission for human rights and the first reforms opening the way to freedom of the media and information, and we now are approaching the 25th anniversary of the 8 August 1988 massacre. Our organization, which defends and promotes freedom of information, is concerned about the lack of significant efforts to address impunity for the systematic crimes and violations against news providers during the years of repression.
Our organization, which was on a blacklist preventing it from working directly in Burma for more than 20 years, is not able to provide an exhaustive list of the crimes committed during this period, but we have kept a record of cases of journalists who were killed by the junta’s henchmen because of their work or who died as a result of the treatment they received from the junta in prison.
The authorities in Rangoon announced at a press conference on 14 May 1991 that Ne Win, a correspondent for the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shimbun who had been jailed since 24 October 1990, 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.
A month later, on 11 June 1991, Ba Thaw, a newspaper cartoonist also known as Maung Thaw Ka, reportedly died in prison. The authorities said he had died of a heart attack.
Seven years later, in August 1998, Saw Win, editor of the daily Botahtaung, died of a heart attack in Tharrawady prison. Relatives said he had not been receiving the medical treatment he needed. He had been sentenced to ten years' imprisonment in 1990.
In September 1999, Thar Win, a photographer with the government newspaper Kyemon, died at an intelligence agency detention centre. Shortly before his arrest, his newspaper had published a photograph of Gen. Khin Nyunt, the junta's strongman, alongside a report headlined “The world's biggest crook.” The authorities claimed that Thar Win had also died of cirrhosis of the liver.
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 as he was trying to take pictures of an attack on Aung San Suu Kyi’s motorcade in Depayin on 30 May 2003. He died on the spot.
Kenji Nagai, a Japanese photographer and video reporter 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.
His death was unique inasmuch as it was the only one, possibly therefore the last one, to have been recorded on film 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.
Fellow Japanese journalist Tsutomu Haringey, a colleague of Nagai’s, told Reporters Without Borders that he and other journalists tried to recover Nagai’s video camera “in order to pay a last tribute to his courageous work.” Another video, shot by Burmese journalists and broadcast by the Japanese media in 2007, showed that a soldier took Nagai’s Sony camera from his body. Six years later, Nagai’s family are still waiting for answers, and for justice to be done.
We urge you to create a Commission of Enquiry dedicated to combatting impunity for crimes against news providers since 1962 because we know that Burma is now starting a new page in its history and we believe that the process of democratization begun by your government will not be complete without an official effort to render justice for the victims of the military junta’s crimes.
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.
By undertaking to not let these murders go unpunished and to bring those responsible to justice, you would be taking a historic step towards national reconciliation and guaranteeing all human rights in Burma.
We hope our request will meet your approval and we look forward to your reply.
Reporters Without Borders secretary-general
In the run-up to President Thein Sein’s visit, Reporters Without Borders has also taken action on the relationship between freedom of information and the issue of violence against Burma’s Rohingya community, which is one of the world’s most persecuted minorities, according to the UN.
Reporters Without Borders co-signed an open letter, published yesterday, urging French President François Hollande to ask his Burmese counterpart to guarantee “freedom of the media and information in coverage of the conflicts in Arakan and conflits involving the Rohingyas, as this is crucial for preventing the violence from continuing behind closed doors.”
Today, Reporters Without Borders will participate in a news conference on violations of freedom of information that obstruct coverage of the violence, such as the ban on the sale of the latest issue of Time Magazine because it had a cover story about the Burmese nationalist monk Ashin Wirathu called “The Face of Buddhist Terror.”
Burma rose 18 places in the 2013 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index and is now ranked 151st out of 179 countries.