MANDALAY — Mandalay authorities hassled independent local media who were trying to cover the visit of Norway’s King Harald to Burma’s second-biggest city on Friday, allowing only state-run media to access the event, local journalists said.
Reporters working for media outlets such as The Voice, Seven Day News and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) turned up at Gaw Wein jetty on the Irrawaddy River to wait for the arrival of the king and his entourage, after they travelled from Rangoon to Mandalay by boat as part of an official five-day state visit.
Local Special Branch police, however, shoed the reporters away, warning them that only selected media were allowed to cover the king’s arrival.
“We were told by a guy from the SB office at the jetty that only those media that are ‘legal’ media are allowed to cover the king’s visit,” said Kyaw Zay Win, a video reporter for DVB. “It seems they consider other media, except for state-owned and crony-owned media, as illegal.”
State-owned television broadcaster MRTV, military-owned TV station Myawaddy and Skynet, a satellite TV station owned by a company Shwe Than Lwin with close government links, were among the media outlets allowed on to the jetty to record the king’s arrival.
“You guys are not on the list. We got the list of only six legal media. The New Light of Myanmar, Myawaddy, MRTV, Yadanarpon, Mandalay Daily and SkyNet,” a Special Branch officer told an Irrawaddy reporter and other journalists.
“You guys must go away from this place and if you want to take photos, you can take them from there,” said the officer, while pointing out to the river bank far away from the jetty, where dozens of school children were waiting for the king while holding small flags of Burma and Norway.
Prior to the event, authorities promised independent media press that they could register for press cards to cover the event, but authorities failed to follow through on the promise.
After preventing independent media from accessing the jetty for several hours before the king’s arrival, the journalists were finally allowed to get closer to the event, but then most decided not to cover the royal arrival out of anger with the authorities over their treatment.
On Wednesday, controversy arose in relation to the visit of the Norwegian monarch when news emerged that Mandalay authorities had evicted scores of poor families living on the Irrawaddy River bank to avoid blighting the landscape upon the arrival of King Harald.
Norwegian broadcaster NRK subsequently quoted the king as saying that the eviction was “very sad.”
“We have not asked for this at all. We were having a private reception here, but this is something they have wanted,” King Harald reportedly said, adding that the incident shows that Burma’s democratic transition has “a way to go yet.”
Zaw Zaw, a freelance journalist, said, “We wonder whether this is the arrangement of the Norwegian authorities or just by the local authorities. The security officers told us that the decision not to allow [independent] media came from the Mandalay Division chief minister.”
“We can’t accept that. They must understand we need freedom to access information and write the news—and there must be no discrimination,” he added.
It is not uncommon for Burmese authorities to limit access to government events and ceremonies in order to avoid critical media coverage, often only allowing state and army-owned outlets access. In Mandalay, authorities often hassle independent media before granting them access to government events.
In March, Burma Army chief Min Aung Hlaing promised to hold his first ever press conference on the sidelines of the Asean Chiefs of Defense Forces Informal Meeting in Naypyidaw, but independent media were prevented from attending the event and the commander only took questions from state-owned outlets.
In July 2013, independent media were blocked from covering the opening ceremony of the Mandalay office of the Southeast Asia Gas Pipeline Company Limited, an event cohosted by the Energy Ministry. The consortium of Chinese firms is constructing the controversial Swe Gas pipeline, which connects China’s Yunnan Province with Burmese offshore oil and gas reserves in the Bay of Bengal.
Media freedom has drastically improved in Burma since 2011, when President Thein Sein’s nominally-civilian government took office. The past year, however, has seen significant backsliding as authorities initiated a number of criminal cases against several media organizations that led to the imprisonment of more than 10 members of the media, while the government also passed controversial media laws.