A Paper Tricks Burma's Junta

There are times when somebody does something so wildly courageous – or quixotic – that it makes you proud just to be in the same profession with them. That happened a week ago when Burma's best-selling sports journal, First Eleven, led the paper with three front-page headlines that appeared to be about football — "Sunderland Freeze Chelsea," "United Stunned by Villa" and "Arsenal Advance to Grab Their Hope."

But the paper, run by an individual named Dr. Than Htut Aung, altered the letter colors to spell out a message so that the combined colored letters read: "Su Free Unite & Advance to Grab The Hope." That revealed the news to Burma's long-suffering population that democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi had been released from seven years of house arrest by the hated junta that has run the place for the last 31 years.

That was a stunning dare and one that made the ruling State Peace and Development Council, as Burma's ruling junta calls itself, a laughing-stock in the eyes of the world. It earned First Eleven a two-week suspension from publication, which was probably light punishment, considering the junta's previous actions. People have been sent to jail for the possession of fax machines.

The country's papers were only allowed to carry the briefest mention of Suu Ky's releases from detention. They was not allowed to carry any criticism of the country's blatantly rigged national elections although some districts apparently reported that more than 100 percent of the voters had endorsed the junta, which didn't allow Suu Kyi to stand – probably judicious, since she probably would have pulled the 86 percent victory percentage she won in the 1990 election that the junta refused to recognize.

Much of the independent Burmese press distinguished themselves in a way that reporters in the west and more civilized countries have never had to deal with. In order to get their stories out they have darted into internet cafes, filed a few lines and skipped out for the next place before those monitoring the cafes could figure out what they were up to. A team of reporters dared detention to report stories for Asia Sentinel and other independent media. In addition to First Eleven, three privately owned journals were reprimanded by the censorship board for reporting on Suu Kyi's release. Open News was also suspended for two weeks for announcing her release and carrying news of her speech to her supporters. "Burma, which heavily censors print and broadcast media, has also applied extensive restrictions on blogging and other Internet activity," according to a prepared release by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which calls the country the worst in the world for bloggers. One – Maung Thura, popularly known as Zarganar, was sentenced to 59 years in jail for disseminating videos of Tropical Cyclone Nargis in 2007, for which the country was woefully unprepared.

"Authorities heavily regulate (internet) cafés, requiring them, for example, to enforce censorship rules," the CPJ said. "The government, which shut down the Internet altogether during a popular uprising in 2007, has the capability to monitor e-mail and other communication methods and to block users from viewing Web sites of political opposition groups, according to OpenNet Initiative. At least two bloggers are now in prison."

According to an article in The Irrawaddy, staff at First Eleven fooled the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) by sending them copy for approval in black and white. "When the publication was released, people quickly began talking about it. That's how we found out. After that, the Ministry of Information took action against the journal," a staff member of the censorship board told Irrawaddy.

Other Rangoon papers took other action. Because they couldn't run any large photos of Suu Kyi or put her photo on the front page, most printed the story and picture as a "supplement." When they sold the copies at newsstands, the supplements, with large photos of Suu Kyi, were wrapped around the papers to become the cover.

At least 12 reporters for local publications are behind bars in Burma, CPJ said in a prepared release. In addition, the Burmese arrested Toru Yamaji, a reporter with Agence-France Presse, indicating he had been arrested in Myawaddy, on the country's eastern border with Thailand while trying to cover the country's first elections in two decades. The CPJ quoted Japan's embassy in Rangoon saying Yamaji was flown to the capital after being detained. In September 2007, the video journalist Kenji Nagai, who also worked for APF, was shot and killed while covering demonstrations by Buddhist monks and their supporters in Rangoon.