Seventeen journalists for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) are serving lengthy prison sentences, some more than 60 years, in Burma for their work documenting atrocities committed by the military and government.
The rise of video journalist (VJ) networks in Burma has been fuelled by developments in technology that have allowed undercover teams to send material out of the country to exiled and foreign media.
In 1988, when millions of Burmese took to the streets demanding an end to military rule and the establishment of a democratic government, the military killed some 3000, and sent many more to jail. Yet the world knew little about it.
But nearly 20 years later, when a Japanese journalist was shot dead by Burmese soldiers in the midst of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, VJs were there to capture the incident, and within hours it appeared on television screens around the world. As a result, the Burmese regime realised that they no longer had a free hand to kill peaceful demonstrators. The death toll in 2007 was estimated at around 100, far fewer than that of 1988, partly thanks to VJs who reported the atrocities in a timely manner.
Video journalists again played an important role in reporting the country’s worst-ever disaster. When cyclone Nargis struck in May 2008, the regime banned reporters from entering the devastated Irrawaddy delta region, fearful that international scrutiny would again trigger widespread criticism of Burma’s rulers. But undercover reporters managed to gain access, and exposed the true extent of damage and the regime’s indifference to victims.
The awarding of prestigious international media and journalism awards to VJs is an acknowledgement of their performance and contribution to press freedom in a closed country. All VJs and potential VJs know the importance and impact of the work they do. Yet they are also paying a high price for their priceless work.
There have been murmurings of hope from sections of the international community that the new government will initiative positive change in Burma. Whether such changes include the release of we are so eagerly waiting for is one of the major tests of the government. In his recent speech, President Thein Sein pledged a respect for the role of the media, acknowledging its role as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the state, in addition to the executive, legislature and judiciary institutions.
Today, on World Press Freedom Day, we must remember DVB’s journalists who are languishing in prisons across the country, and do our outmost to ensure their freedom. That is why were are launching the Free Burma VJ Campaign today to mobilise international efforts towards their release. Ultimately, however, it is the government’s final say, but we can use their fate to gauge whether progress toward greater freedom in Burma can be expected in the near future.
Khin Maung Win is deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma.