Page last updated at 23:40 GMT, Tuesday, 1 July 2008 00:40 UK

Reporting on post-cyclone Burma

Children queue for food in a camp in the Irrawaddy Delta on Sunday
The cyclone left thousands dependent on aid
It is exactly two months since Cyclone Nargis hit Burma, causing widespread death and devastation.

In a country that has been under military rule since 1962 and controls almost all aspects of the media, it was a huge challenge to report on the aftermath of this disaster.

BBC journalists who managed to get into Burma either had to enter secretly, or pretend to be tourists and report undercover.

They shared their experiences of reporting in such difficult conditions for the BBC World Service's Assignment programme.


The BBC's Paul Danahar was one of the first journalists to enter the country, arriving three days after the cyclone hit.

"We had our visas because there was supposed to be a referendum on the Saturday after the cyclone, so we had applied for tourist visas," he said.

As long as you keep moving, you stand a better chance of not getting caught

"We had to go through the rigmarole of travelling around the region finding embassies that were less aware that journalists were trying to get themselves in. We made up fake business cards to present to the visa offices.

"We had some kit that we stashed somewhere inside Burma after the demonstrations that happened the previous year, so we knew what we had to work with when we got in.

Paul and his crew had to remove anything that identified them as BBC and travel with hand luggage so that they could get past immigration controls more easily.

They also found it was most effective to keep moving, as foreigners quickly attract the attention of the security apparatus.

"The one thing the Burmese government doesn't have is a huge amount of communications infrastructure - so as long as you keep moving, you stand a better chance of not getting caught.

"Where that doesn't really work is the hotels in the capital city and that's where you have to be more careful."

Paul decided to not to hide his identity when he reported, and ended up being deported.


The next BBC reporter to arrive in Burma - a week after the cyclone - worked anonymously for the 10 days that he was there.

He retains his anonymity even now, to give him a better chance of returning to the country.

"One of the dramatic things that we encountered, having been in Burma before and seen how reticent and afraid people are to speak up against the government, was just how this cyclone had made people angry enough and brave enough to come up to strangers with microphones and cameras and vent their anger against the Burmese government," he said.


Natalia Antelava was the next BBC journalist to arrive from her base in central Asia.

She landed in Rangoon 10 days after the cyclone, at a time when journalists and aid workers were trying to get into the worst-hit areas.

"Although the Irrawaddy Delta was blocked off, we were actually very lucky to get in," she said.

All along the way, people that we met were extremely helpful and definitely wanted their story to get out

"We drove and it took about 13 hours to get to one of the furthest towns in the delta, called Laputta. Along the bumpy road, past the checkpoints - for most of the time, I was the only foreigner in the car.

"The soldiers never actually saw me because I was hiding under the back seat," she added.

"All along the way, people that we met were extremely helpful and definitely wanted their story to get out, and that's what helped us more than anything else."

Natalia met a young boy in the town of Laputta who lost all his family in the cyclone.

"He managed to cling on to a tree for almost 14 hours and was eventually saved by a local fisherman who got him out.

"I remember sitting in a boat across from him as we were going towards his village and passing all the bodies and destruction on the way and trying to imagine what could possibly be going on in his mind.

"Around 400 people once lived in the village that we visited and we only found about 20 survivors," said Natalia Antelava.


As the days wore on, the news coming from Burma was of people stranded, bodies left uncollected and very little disaster relief by the authorities.

International frustration was growing and pressure was mounting on the General Than Shwe to meet UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He finally he agreed almost two weeks after the cyclone.

Laura Trevelyan, the BBC's UN correspondent, managed to get a place on Mr Ban's plane out of New York.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon
Ban Ki-moon met the Burmese leader two weeks after the cyclone
"What was really fascinating about being part of Ban Ki-moon's official delegation, yet also being a journalist, was that there were absolutely no restrictions at all on what I was able to do."

She had a portable satellite to allow her send her reports back. This equipment was shown to the Burmese authorities and just waved through.

The Burmese government organised a helicopter trip for the UN General Secretary and his delegation to the Irrawaddy Delta.

"We didn't see people suffering. We saw from the air the devastation that the cyclone had caused, but the helicopter landed at what one UN official described furiously as a 'show camp'.

"There were very few people in this camp and the people looked in really reasonably good condition, the camp was completely spick and span."


The BBC's Matt Prodger went to Burma almost a month after the cyclone hit.

A ring of steel surrounded the capital, preventing both aid workers and journalists getting to the disaster areas.

"Although it was very difficult to get to the affected areas, we were able to find out what was happening because on the streets of Rangoon there were pirate DVD stores selling amateur footage from the affected areas.

"There was very little evidence on those DVDs of any organised distribution of aid by the Burmese military or other authorities."

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