“We applaud the release our colleague Thaung Tun, but we call on the Burmese government to free the six journalists still being held,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Burma's military leaders continuously talk about moving toward democracy. Releasing the journalists still in detention would be a meaningful step in that direction.”
Thaung Tun, an editor, reporter, and poet more widely known by his pen name Nyein Thit, was sentenced to eight years in prison in October 1999 for his role in producing unauthorized video documentaries that portrayed the hardship of life in Burma under military rule. His work included stark footage of forced labor and impoverished conditions in rural areas.
He was freed along with nearly 3000 prisoners on Wednesday, including at least 20 who were imprisoned for political crimes, according to international press reports. CPJ awarded Thaung Tun and his videographer colleague Aung Pwint its International Press Freedom Awards in 2004 for their courage in upholding press freedom in a country that CPJ ranked as the second most censored in the world in 2006. Aung Pwint was released in July 2005.
Before Thaung Tun's release, Burma was the fifth leading jailer of journalists in the world, according to recent CPJ research. Among those imprisoned is 77-year-old U Win Tin, who has served more than 17 years on various antistate charges. Most recently, the military junta sentenced journalists Thaung Sein and Ko Kyaw Thwin to three years in prison in March 2005 for videotaping on the outskirts of the country's restricted new capital, Pyinmana.
The country's already abysmal prison conditions have worsened since prison monitoring by the International Committee of the Red Cross was curtailed by the government in December 2005, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in Burma, which is based in neighboring Thailand.
Two other CPJ Press Freedom Award recipients remain in jail. Shi Tao, an editor for Dangdai Shang Bao who was honored in 2005, is serving a 10-year sentence in China on charges of “leaking state secrets abroad.” In Eritrea, Fesshaye “Joshua” Yohannes, publisher and founding editor of Setit, was jailed in September 2001 as part of crackdown on the private press. Little is known of his whereabouts or state of health. He was awarded a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2002.