No News Is Bad News
BANGKOK - Exactly four years ago this month, a cyclone, the strongest in 30 years, hit Myanmar. A journalist, writing one month later in The Irrawaddy (a news magazine published by Burmese exiles), wondered how the country's state-controlled news media could fail to make any mention of a typhoon that the United Nations said killed at least 140 people, sunk vessels and made an estimated 18,000 people homeless.
The journalist, Dominic Faulder, wrote that "a town of 100,000 could burn to the ground here and nobody would ever know about it." Here, he concluded, is a country "where disasters don't happen, officially." For the people of Myanmar, this truth is more devastating - and its tragedy more lingering - than anything that nature may bring.
If information can flow as freely as nature's elements, the consequences of many calamities - be they earthquakes, floods, droughts, hurricanes or storms - are manageable and even preventable. Absent such freedom in news and information, all "natural" disasters are ultimately man-made.
When the military junta in Myanmar refused on Friday to accept relief workers into the country, its actions underscored a terrible reality: the ruling generals view independent information as more dangerous to them than Cyclone Nargis, which may have killed 20,000 to 100,000 people and left up to a million people homeless. And for the Burmese people, a drought in information can be deadlier than the forces that despots seek to deny.
Catastrophes of this scale are inconvenient to governments of this peculiar character because they give aid agencies compelling arguments to be allowed to operate in even the most notoriously secretive of states. Once inside, relief workers can afford the world a glimpse of the poverty within the world's most restricted borders.
In Myanmar, caught between the need to aid its people and the reflex to hide any suggestion of vulnerability, the junta has been consistent in its choice. After the tsunami of December 2004, Myanmar's generals made the World Food Program wait two weeks before its workers could even visit the affected areas.
Four years later, Indian meteorologists were warning of Cyclone Nargis as early as April 26. As predicted, the cyclone made landfall in Myanmar on May 2 - the eve of World Press Freedom Day. The irony is worth noting because the tragedy wasn't that India's advisories fell on deaf ears. Rather, they were relayed to the gagged.
Myanmar has the worst conditions for press freedom and access to information in Southeast Asia. All broadcasting systems are state-owned and the largest newspapers are controlled by the government. The junta's censorship of publications is so thorough (and deliberately slow) that daily papers do not exist. The Internet, too, is heavily restricted and monitored and foreign journalists are routinely denied visas into the country.
As a result, the rescue and relief efforts in Myanmar will inevitably continue to be tragic. By now it is plain that the junta's uncompromising policies regarding the press and access to information are a source not only of political repression, but also of humanitarian emergency. Aid workers are not the only essential element for relief and recovery that the country's callous leaders are denying their people.
Until free and reliable news and information become available in Myanmar, the Burmese will continue to suffer horrors that are literally untold.
Roby Alampay, an Asia Society fellow, is the executive director of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance.
© 2008 The New York Times