A new term, “Sandwich Reporting,” has crept into the vocabulary of Burmese journalists looking for ways to bypass the government censors.
“Just like a sandwich, which puts a filling between two slices of bread, we insert into our stories messages that are missed by the censors,” said an editor working for a weekly journal in Rangoon. “We call it ‘sandwich reporting style,'” she said.
Burma’s more than 450 non-government newspapers, journals and magazines must all submit to the regime’s Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRD) the reports and articles they intend to publish.
Scarcely a month goes by without one publication or another being suspended for slipping an offending article or picture past the PSRD censors. Sometimes, the author lands in jail—like the poet Saw Wai who was sentenced in 2008 to two years imprisonment after writing a Valentine’s Day poem containing the hidden message “[Snr-Gen] Than Shwe is foolish with power.”
The offending message was formed by the first words of the poem’s seven lines.
The magazine Love Journal carried the poem and rapidly sold out before the censors discovered they had been hoodwinked. Saw Wai, 50, was freed in May after serving 28 months in prison—four months longer than his original sentence.
The censors were reportedly issued with magnifying glasses and mirrors after the Love Journal incident, with the instruction to be more careful in future to detect coded messages.
In one spectacular coup in July 2007, an activist group of artists inserted in the English-language newspaper The Myanmar Times an advertisement containing coded messages calling Than Shwe a killer and hailing “freedom.”
The half-page ad said it was inserted by “The Board of Islandic Travel Agencies Ewhsnahtrellik and the Danish Industry BesoegDanmark”—the censors failed to notice that the Danish-sounding word “Ewhsnahtrellik” spelt “killer Than Shwe” when read backwards.
A poem in the ad contained the coded word “freedom.”
The authorities had a hard time in 2007 and 2008 preventing news of the monk-led demonstrations and Cyclone Nargis being spread outside Burma by Internet-savvy journalists, bloggers and photographers. Internet access was cut, but the so-called citizen journalists still found methods to get their material to the outside world.
This year, journalists are encountering tighter censorship as the authorities gear up for the general election.
In late July, the Rangoon journal The Voice was ordered by the PSRD to temporarily halt publication after it carried an article analyzing the country’s new constitution.
Also in July, the monthly magazine Style Thit had to slash its edition by 100 pages on the orders of the PSRD.
The offending pages covered Burma’s Martyrs Day and the assassination of the country’s independence hero Aung San, according to journalists in Rangoon.
At least 10 journalists in Burma were arrested in 2008 and one received a prison sentence of 19 years. About 30 poets, writers, journalists and bloggers are among more than 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma).
In a report by Reporters Without Borders in May marking this year’s World Press Freedom Day, Burma was one of 40 countries on a list of “Predators of Press Freedom,” along with countries like Cuba, Libya, North Korea and Turkmenistan.