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Press freedom requires action, not talk, in Burma

Burmese taxi drivers read a newspaper featuring a picture of newly sworn-in president Thein Sein. (AFP/Soe Than Win)

Burma's newly installed democratic government has sent tentative signals that it intends to allow for more media openness as the country transitions from military to civilian rule. The continued detention of more than 2,100 political prisoners, including as many as 25 journalists, however, belies President Thein Sein's recent press-promoting pronouncements.

No news organization has suffered more under that repression than the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based exile-run news service that maintains a network of more than 100 undercover reporters across the country. Today at a press event in Bangkok, DVB launched its "Free Burma VJ Campaign" to raise public and diplomatic awareness about the plight of its 17 video journalists behind bars in Burma.

Of those 17, DVB has acknowledged only five by name due to concerns authorities would extend the sentences of the others if it was discovered they had worked as undercover DVB reporters. Hla Hla Win, one of the imprisoned reporters serving a 27-year sentence, was given an additional 20 years when authorities found she had sent images over the Internet to DVB.

Maung Maung Zeya, another DVB reporter sentenced earlier this year to 13 years in prison for his reporting activities, was drugged during interrogations where authorities pressured him to reveal other reporters in DVB's underground network, according to a presentation made by Toe Zaw Latt, DVB's Thailand bureau chief. His son, Sithu Zeya, a DVB video journalist serving eight years in prison, was tortured while in detention, according to Toe Zaw Latt's presentation.

DVB's other two acknowledged jailed reporters, Ngwe Soe Lin and Win Maw, are serving respectively 13- and 17-year sentences for charges related to their reporting.

Ngwe Soe Lin received a prestigious Rory Peck Award for best documentary in 2009 for his "Orphans of the Cyclone" film about the devastation of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster.

Toe Zaw Latt noted that DVB has released a series of hard-hitting documentaries, including a recent investigative report about the military regime's secret nuclear ambitions and ties to North Korea that aired on Al-Jazeera--the government's censorship board would never allow the report to be aired in the local media. The same can be said for the DVB's daring undercover news coverage of the 2007 Saffron Revolution, a Buddhist monk-led revolt that was eventually crushed by military force. 

Those revealing reports explain why DVB has as many as 10 million daily viewers inside Burma and also why the regime has so aggressively targeted its reporters. While Thein Sein has recently talked about the media playing a "fourth estate" role, genuine press freedom will not take root in Burma until the DVB's and other reporters are released from prison and allowed to operate openly without fear of reprisal.

(Reporting from Bangkok)

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