Media watchdog tempers amnesty hype

Burma must release all journalists and bloggers from jail if the conciliatory gestures behind yesterday’s prisoner amnesty are to be taken seriously, a media watchdog has said.

So far 206 political prisoners have been freed since yesterday morning, including high-profile blogger and comedian, Zarganar. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the “initial gesture” yesterday is an “important one whose scope we fully appreciate. But it must be followed by other gestures that will steer the country towards more freedom and democracy.

“Bloggers, journalists and all other media workers must eventually be allowed to operate freely in Burma,” the group said in a statement. “This will require major reforms, including repeal of the Electronics Act, which has so often been used to censor all forms of expression in Burma.”

Among those highlighted as key to this are the 17 video journalists in prison for their work for DVB, as well as bloggers Nay Phone Latt and Kaung Myat Hlaing.

Under the Electronics Law, Burmese can be sentenced to 20 years for publishing information deemed subversive. The majority of media workers behind bars in Burma have been found guilty under this charge.

As it became apparent yesterday that political prisoners would only make up a small proportion of the thousands released from jail, human rights groups, many of whom had approached the amnesty with cautious optimism, rounded on the government.

Benjamin Zawacki, Burma researcher at Amnesty International, said the events of yesterday were “disappointing”.

“We had reason to expect, given the rather fast and qualitative steps that have taken place over the past several months, that today’s release would be more substantial numerically than these preliminary reports are telling us.”

That sentiment was echoed by Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Elaine Pearson, who warned that Burma remained a far from secure environment for regime critics.

“The laws that put them behind bars are still on the books and can be used again at any time. If the government wants to show it is really different from its predecessors, it should convene parliament and repeal laws criminalising peaceful political speech.”

It remains unclear at this stage whether more prisoners will be released. The jailing of more than 1,200 dissidents has long been the focus of rallying cries among Burma’s pro-democracy movement, but with so few released yesterday, skepticism of the regime’s apparently reformist nature is likely to build.

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