Burma's military junta lashed out Friday at foreign media coverage of last month's devastating cyclone, saying journalists were circulating false stories to tarnish the image of the country.
The criticism came after authorities in Burma, also known as Myanmar, detained a popular Burmese comedian who had just returned from helping survivors of the disaster and who had also said government aid was not reaching some victims.
The Burmese regime says Cyclone Nargis, which struck May 2-3, killed 78,000 people and left an additional 56,000 missing. The UN says more than one million survivors still desperately need food, shelter or medical care.
The authorities, who are notoriously xenophobic, have been reluctant to give visas to foreign relief experts, even after the United Nations Secretary General Ban ki-Moon secured promises of full access to storm-hit areas during a visit last month.
Foreign journalists have had to sneak into the country pretending to be tourists and at least two reporters, for the BBC and CNN, have been forcibly expelled.
The CBC's Stephanie Jenzer recently returned from a clandestine visit to the worst affected areas of Burma, the southern Irrawaddy River delta region.
Local journalists arrested
Reports from Rangoon Friday said at least a dozen Burmese people involved in filming cyclone victims in the Irrawaddy delta have been arrested.
The state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper, considered a mouthpiece for the junta, accused "self-seekers and unscrupulous elements" of working in collusion with foreigners to shoot videos with made-up stories in storm-ravaged areas in the delta.
"Those foreign news agencies are issuing such groundless news stories with the intention of tarnishing the image of Myanmar and misleading the international community into believing that cyclone victims do not receive any assistance," the newspaper said.
The military junta has been criticized by international agencies for holding up shipments of food, water and temporary shelter supplies to some one million desperate survivors of the cyclone.
The well-known comedian Maung Thura — whose stage name is Zarganar — was taken from his home in Rangoon by police Wednesday night after going to the Irrawaddy delta to donate relief items to survivors, his family said.
A family member said Friday that they had heard nothing from Zarganar and the junta has given no reason for his detention.
Zarganar, 46, known both for his anti-government barbs and his work for cyclone victims, was taken into custody after police searched his house and confiscated some belongings. He and his team had made video records of their relief activities and Zarganar gave interviews to foreign media.
Amnesty says victims expelled from camps
A representative of the human rights group Amnesty International said Zarganar's detention illustrated human rights concerns in Burma.
In a report released in London on Thursday, Amnesty cited several cases of forced labour in exchange for food in the delta and accused the junta of stepping up a campaign to evict the homeless from shelters.
"Unless human rights safeguards are observed, tens of thousands of people remain at risk," the report said. "Respect for human rights must be at the centre of the relief effort."