Burmese junta relaxes access to foreign websites

 

The authorities in Burma have for the first time allowed access to a series of previously banned news sites, among them several operated by exiled journalists.

In what observers will hope is a sign of continuing incremental changes in the regime's conduct, following last year's elections and the transfer to a purportedly civilian administration, censors unblocked access to sites including the BBC, the Democratic Voice of Burma, Radio Free Asia and YouTube.

The internet has long been a battleground in the military-controlled government's campaign to stop outside information reaching the Burmese people and details about what is happening inside the country from getting out.

Clampdowns have coincided with events such the 2007 "saffron uprising" when tens of thousands of citizens and Buddhist monks took to the streets, and the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when at least 150,000 people perished.

Last month, the regime, which recently held a series of press conferences in what observers believe is an ongoing attempt to improve its global image, ceased printing condemnations against the foreign media in its state-controlled papers. Slogans against the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma and other organisations were printed in the back page of papers such as the New Light of Myanmar.

While journalists inside Burma are said to have welcomed yesterday's move, campaigners said the unblocking of the websites was just a small step.

Shawn Crispin, of the Committee to Protect Journalists, told the Associated Press that less than 0.3 per cent of the population had access to such media. "Until Burma's military-backed regime stops pre-censoring the local media and releases all the journalists it holds behind bars, Burma will remain one of the most restricted media environments in the world," he said.

The Democratic Voice of Burma says around 25 journalists are currently detained in Burma, 17 of them its own.

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