Free Burma VJ campaign urges release of journalists

From Paris to Bangkok, London to Geneva, the Free Burma VJ campaign will stage protests in front of Burmese embassies on Friday to call for the immediate release of 17 jailed video journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a leading Burmese exile media organization. The campaign began less than two months after Burma’s new government was sworn in, supposedly hailing the beginning of Burma’s transition to civilian rule. But DVB is not alone in thinking that the ongoing incarceration of journalists, who are among the nearly 2,000 political prisoners in Burma, is a sign that little has changed since the ostensible end to military rule.

Instead there are signs that media in Burma will come under greater control and surveillance–new media laws announced in March 2011 effectively force domestic journalists to self-censor their work or risk imprisonment, while media watchdogs claim that a supposed “upgrade” to the country’s Internet system will only increase military snooping of Internet users.

Burma is widely recognized as having one of the world’s most repressive media environments, and consistently ranks at the tail end of global press freedom indexes. In addition to DVB journalists, at least eight other media workers are behind bars in the country. Some, such as DVB reporter Hla Hla Win, are serving 27-year sentences. The most recent Press Freedom Index by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders placed Burma 174 out of 178 countries. The country has also been labeled an “enemy of the Internet” and the world’s most dangerous place to be a blogger.

Burmese exile news groups such as DVB feed off networks of underground journalists inside the country. Their work is dangerous, but it provides a crucial window into one of the world’s most hermetic states. DVB broadcasts satellite television and shortwave radio back into Burma to counter the regime’s propaganda and reaches a combined audience of close to 10 million.

The Free Burma VJ campaign will call on international bodies such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to apply pressure on the Burmese government to release DVB’s jailed journalists. We feel it is important to do this now for several reasons. First, the new government has pledged reform and progress, and the international community must base its reaction to this on evidence that Burma will release its political prisoners. Any succor to the government risks legitimizing its practice of jailing independent journalists, and the recent visit by U.N. envoy Vijay Nambiar, in which he noted “very encouraging” signs from the government, must be countered with evidence to the contrary.

Second, there are health concerns for the jailed VJs, many of whom were tortured during interrogations for information on DVB’s operation. This was certainly the case for 21-year-old Sithu Zeya, who was handed an eight-year sentence last December after police caught him photographing the aftermath of the April 2010 grenade attacks in Rangoon. Under torture, he confessed that his father, U Zeya, had led a team of VJs inside the country. U Zeya was arrested and sentenced in February this year to 13 years in prison. Close to 150 political prisoners have died in detention in Burma, and we are adamant that our VJs will not join that list.

For security reasons, we are only naming five of the 17 jailed VJs: Hla Hla Win, Sithu Zeya, U Zeya, Ngwe Soe Lin, and Win Maw. As far as we know, the Burmese government does not know that the remaining 12 are DVB staff. As in the cases of Win Maw and Hla Hla Win, their sentences are likely to be drastically extended if their employer’s identity were discovered.