Elizabeth Hughes From: The Australian
May 09, 2011
IT'S a Burmese tragedy with a cast of 17 brave characters. They are all journalists with the Democratic Voice of Burma -- the exiled media organisation that broadcasts uncensored television and radio into Burma. And, for the crime of reporting the news, they have been immured in some of the nation's most isolated prisons, mostly for years on end, and sometimes for decades.
Last week, one day after the UN's World Press Freedom day, DVB launched a Free Burma VJ (video-journalists) campaign in an attempt to push for their release, publicly conceding for the first time that the total of DVB reporters behind bars had reached the alarming total of 17. The new information means Burma is the third-most oppressive jailer of journalists in the world, after China and Iran, with a total of about 25 incarcerated.
Only five of the DVB 17 have been named, because the Burmese authorities usually treat journalists even more harshly than other prisoners. DVB wants to maintain some discretion to avoid even more punitive conditions. It remains unclear how the unnamed 12 were captured, what they were charged with and how long their prison sentences were.
DVB's video-journalists are a trained and dedicated group, says DVB's Thailand bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt. "In Burma, if Big Brother is watching you, OK, your small brother is watching you back with a small camera," he adds.
But critics say not all the journalists are professionally trained, and they wonder if the risk of lengthy jail terms is worth the rewards. They note that although DVB maintains it is now an independent and professional organisation, with an audience of as many as 10 million people, it grew from political roots. DVB employs more than 100 journalists in various locations in Burma, Toe Zaw Latt says, and as well as providing the raw material for DVB broadcasts, their footage is sometimes used by foreign media organisations, and even in an Oscar-nominated documentary titled Burma VJ.
Two of the DVB journalists most recently arrested are a young man and his father. Sithu Zeya, 21, was arrested in April last year while filming the aftermath of a grenade attack that left nine dead and hundreds injured in Rangoon.
DVB says he was interrogated for five days, tortured and denied food for two days. He was finally sentenced last December to eight years in prison, for having ties to an unlawful organisation.
"Sithu Zeya had been forced to reveal under torture that his father, Maung Maung Zeya, also served as an undercover DVB reporter," the organisation says.
Maung Maung Zeya, 57, who also worked with DVB, was arrested at his home in Rangoon, soon after his son was detained.
A poet and essayist, he was eventually sentenced to 13 years in prison, and is now incarcerated in Hsipaw prison, hundreds of kilometres from Rangoon. Toe Zaw Latt says Maung Maung Zeya was doped during his interrogation, and another of his sons has been forced to flee.
Military intelligence officers arrested 48-year-old Win Maw in November 2007, in a Rangoon tea shop, soon after he had visited an internet cafe. DVB says he was accused of being the "mastermind" of DVB's news coverage of the 2007 anti-government Saffron revolution led by Buddhist monks and students. Win Maw was originally sentenced in 2008 to seven years in prison for sending "false" information to DVB. The next year, he was sentenced to an extra 10 years for violations of the Electronics Act. He is in the remote Sandoway prison in Arakan state.
These journalists are just a few among the crowds of political prisoners locked up by the Burmese regime: activists, lawyers, writers, poets -- anyone, in short, with the temerity to express a view or which differs from the official line.
Nearly 2100 prisoners of conscience remain incarcerated in Burma, despite international diplomatic efforts to wrangle an amnesty from the nation's new and nominally civilian government.
"Reporting the truth is not a crime," said Toe Zaw Latt. "Someone should not be jailed 20 years for being a journalist."