Freelance journalists under fire in Burma

Dec 10, 2009 (DVB), Burma continues to be one of the world's largest prisons for journalists, according to a media watchdog that warns of a global increase in the jailing of freelance media workers.

Burma joins China, Iran, Cuba and Eritrea as the five worst of 26 countries worldwide that imprison journalists, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) said on Tuesday.

"Freelancers now make up nearly 45 percent of all journalists jailed worldwide, a dramatic recent increase that reflects the evolution of the global news business," it said.

Five of Burma's nine imprisoned journalists, whom generally come under the banner of 'political prisoners', are freelancers, according to CPJ.

These include renowned comedian Zarganar, who was sentenced to 59 years in prison (later commuted to 35 years) in November 2008 after giving interviews to foreign media in which he was critical of the Burmese junta's response to cyclone Nargis.

Zaw Thet Htwe, who worked with Zarganar in filming the aftermath of the cyclone, was also sentenced to 19 years in prison.

Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt, who was imprisoned for 12 years after posting caricatures of Burma's ruling generals on his website, was also listed by CPJ, along with former BBC stringer Ne Min, who is serving a 15 year sentence.

"The days when journalists went off on dangerous assignments knowing they had the full institutional weight of their media organizations behind them are receding into history," said CPJ executive director Joel Simon, in statement.

"Today, journalists on the front lines are increasingly working independently. The rise of online journalism has opened the door to a new generation of reporters, but it also means they are vulnerable."

The group also highlighted the case of Burmese cameraman 'T', who worked for DVB in filming the award-winning documentary, 'Orphans of Burma's Cyclone', and now faces up to 15 years in prison.

"Journalism is so dangerous in Burma, one of the world's most censored countries, that undercover reporters such as "T" are a crucial conduit to the world," said CPJ.

Burma ranked 171 out of 175 in the World Press Freedom Index 2009, released annually by Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Sans Frontieres. CPJ had also named Burma as the "worst country to be a blogger" in a report released in April.

Reporting by Francis Wade

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