MAGWE — Exactly one month after a court in Magwe handed DVB video journalist Zaw Pe a year-long prison sentence, more than 200 protestors took to the streets of the central Burmese city to stage an unauthorised demonstration in support of press freedom.
Authorities denied the protestors a permit on the grounds that the Magwe Division Police do not acknowledge the wrongful imprisonment of any journalists within their jurisdiction, adding that Zaw Pe and other journalists currently in detention are being held on criminal charges.
Organisers of the demonstration said that at least five journalists are currently being wrongfully detained in Magwe: Zaw Pe, incarcerated in Thayet Prison; and five staffers of the Unity Weekly journal, who are still detained in Pakokku Prison while being tried on charges of disclosing state secrets.
Zaw Pe was jailed on 7 April after being convicted for trespassing and disturbing a civil servant. Charges were filed after an August 2012 attempt to interview a Magwe education department official about a Japanese-funded scholarship programme.
Tuesday’s march was one of several similar public appeals for his immediate release.
Supported by local 88 Generation Peace and Open Society (88GPOS) members and representatives of the National League for Democracy, a crowd of supporters marched for two hours and ended at the district education office, symbolic of Zaw Pe’s arrest.
Participants say they were stopped by police three times along the route, and that authorities attempted to block them with barbed-wire barricades.
No arrests were made on Tuesday, though participants worry that arrests could be made later, as has happened in the past.
On 26 March, a journalist in Prome [Pyay] was arrested for a similar unauthorised protest, also demanding greater press freedoms.
The detention of Burmese journalists sparked outcry in several parts of the country, as well as inciting the ire of international media rights organisations. While media suppression affects the whole country, some say that it is particularly bad in Magwe.
In 2010, Aung Thu Nyein, a journalist working for Eleven Media, was held in a police cell in Magwe for two days for taking a photo of a tree that had fallen down during a storm.
“I believe that this situation results from the hardline attitudes of Magwe authorities in particular … The government in Magwe hasn’t changed in the same way the Union government has,” he said. “Magwe has a government with no experience or interest in democratic practice. I think that makes this city a very hard place to be a journalist.”
Aung Thu Nyein, a close friend and working partner of Zaw Pe, believes that the staunch conservatism of Magwe’s regional government combined with President Thein Sein’s refusal to acknowledge the situation will result in Zaw Pe serving out the entire one-year sentence, but he said he believes that protests such as these are critical for building public confidence.
“Local people have always been afraid to ask questions, to take photos. Now they see us chanting for media freedom and they think maybe we can all move out of the dark ages,” he said.