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Imprisoned Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt, whose role in disseminating news of the September 2007 uprising in Burma won him international applaud, has received the prestigious PEN/Barbara Goldsmith award.
Speaking prior the award ceremony last night in New York, PEN president Kwame Anthony Appiah said that Nay Phone Latt, who was arrested in January 2008 and sentenced to 20 years in prison, “represents a younger generation of Burmese who are longing for freedom and willing to pay the cost of speaking out in its defense”.
According to news alerts following his sentencing, the 29-year-old was arrested for posting satirical cartoons of Burmese junta chief Than Shwe on his blog. The charge of “causing public alarm” accounted for two of 20 years he is to spend in prison.
He was also a prolific writer, and posted regular articles during the so-called Saffron Revolution in 2007 that partly compensated for the media blackout enforced by the regime. Burma has one of the most draconian media environments in the world, and journalists are regularly given painfully long sentences.
Aye Aye Than, the mother of Nay Phone Latt, told DVB today that he was already aware of the honour via someone who visited him in prison, and that “he was very happy to win this literature award because that is what he is fond of.”
“He didn’t attack or criticise or denounce anyone on his blog. I have no regret about his blogging,” she said, adding that she last visited him on 1 April and “he was in good health”.
Burma ranked 171 out of 175 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index. Appiah, a Ghanaian novelist and philosopher, also lamented the fact that internet censorship had become “one of the great threats to free expression today”.
“That Nay Phone Latt is also a poet reminds us that every society speaks with the voice of the imagination as well as through its non-fiction writers. We honor him. We thank him. We ask all who have any influence on the government of Burma to press for his release.”
The Burmese junta is expected to intensify its crackdown on journalists in the run-up to elections this year. Around 14 media workers are currently behind bars, some serving sentences of up to 35 years. Nay Phone Latt had been given no legal representation during his trial due to his lawyer being imprisoned the week before.
Fellow Burmese activist, comedian and part-journalist, Zarganar, was last year honoured with the PEN/Pinter award for ‘imprisoned writers of courage’ – Zarganar was sentenced in November 2008 to 59 years, later reduced to 35 years, after giving interviews to foreign media in which he criticized the Burmese junta’s reaction to cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
PEN, which advocates for global freedom of expression, is the world’s oldest human rights organisation and the oldest international literary organisation.