How we got the news from Burma

The current situation in Burma has changed the way news is reported from a country that has seen some of the strictest media laws in the world. On World Press Freedom Day this year, Burma ranked close to the bottom, at 191 out of 195, in the annual study of press freedom.

However, unlike in the 1988 uprising [when up to 3,000 protesters died], these latest protests have allowed the world to hear and see what is happening in Burma with a delay of just a few minutes, thanks in part to the internet and new technology.

On the first day of the monks' protests in Rangoon, Burmese bloggers sent us web links, especially moezack.blogspot.com. It was really amazing to see the photos of the protesting monks and we used a couple of them after getting permission.

The next day, however, the blog disappeared with the blogger saying he had withdrawn it as the military government was searching for whoever was responsible. But more bloggers have taken on the mantle and published photos and video clips.

They have also inspired a new phenomenon. People inside the country are updating the world of the situation by leaving messages about the blogs in public chatroom Cbox.

A London-based Burmese blogger told the BBC Burmese Service that when there are several of the same messages from different witnesses in the Cbox, he rewrites and publishes the news. We also have to watch the messages in Cbox, and after reading the news on blogs we call our own sources to confirm the news independently.

Banned

Recently the popular Burmese blogs were banned inside the country, so the numbers of messages in Cbox decreased for a while – then the bloggers created new sites and everyone is back on track again.

They use free data-hosting websites, such as firewire.com and lastshare.com, to upload photos and video clips on the internet anonymously so that the government cannot easily trace them.

Emails are becoming more useful than ever before as pictures and audio files are being attached to them. Some pictures are of high quality, but the majority of them have been taken with mobile phones.

On the day when the Burmese authorities began to use tear gas and fired warning shots over the heads of the monks and protesters, emails poured into our mailbox. We received pictures of the clashes between the security forces and the monks as well as audio MP3 files which were recorded on location. We could hear people shouting and gun shot sounds in the background as the protestors were dispersed by the security forces.

The use of mobile phones enables activists to record the events as and when they are unfolding in the streets of Rangoon, but we always verify the events with our own witnesses.

Many of our sources use internet cafes and web-based email accounts such as Gmail and Yahoo. The internet is heavily censored in Burma, but the use of proxy websites and other ways to bypass censorship are also well known among web enthusiasts.

In Burma, internet cafes must install spyware which tracks any message sent, but many people are not afraid to send emails to the BBC mailbox. In some instances, pictures have been sent to relatives and friends living abroad, who then forward them to our mailbox.

Exiled Burmese also provide us with useful contacts who are witnesses or participants in the protests.

On the day when the protesters, including Buddhist monks, were beaten to death, a London-based man came to our office and offered an audio file from his mobile phone he had recorded with his protesting mother in Rangoon a couple of hours earlier. His mother said that she was shocked to see three monks beaten to death near Shwe Dagon pagoda.

Since the beginning of the protests in late August, the military regime has cut the phone lines of the key protesters. Then they cut the lines of the members of the main opposition party, the National League for Democracy. Now the phone lines of the monasteries active in the recent protests have been cut, so we try to interview the neighbours of the monasteries. Sometimes people close to activists arrange interviews with the monks, and we also ask our friends to go and see the situation on the ground.

In the latest protests, the Burmese state-owned media has reported casualties. On the first day of the military crack down, it reported one dead, and on the second day, nine dead. But our sources said at least one monk and two people were killed on the first day, and some reports put it as at least five people and three monks killed.

We worked hard to clarify this for our own reports. We called the Burmese information ministry and home ministry to get government responses, but they refused to be interviewed or to confirm any news.

It has been very difficult to get responses from the military government during the protests. To have a balanced report, we interview the regime sympathisers and spokespersons from pro-government groups such as the Union Solidarity and Development Association whose members get involved in attacks on fuel-price protesters.

We can also make our reports balanced by interviewing foreign diplomats in Rangoon, as many of them have close relations with senior officials in the Burmese government.

Like most organisations, the BBC is not allowed to have reporters inside Burma, so we have to use a lot of sources for a report to be accurate, credible, impartial and balanced.

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