Hla Hla Win, Sithu Zeya, Maung Maung Zeya, Ngwe Soe Lin and Win Maw are all undercover reporters in Burma, and all are serving jail sentences ranging from eight to 27 years after being caught in one of the world’s most draconian media dragnets.

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Hla Hla Win, a DVB reporter serving a 26-year jail sentence in Burma. Photo: DVB

To coincide with World Press Freedom Day last week on May 3, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) launched a campaign to have its jailed journalists freed.

According to the Burmese government and its supporters, a slow transition from authoritarian rule has begun. But DVB argues that if this is the case, journalists should not be jailed for merely doing their job, and is calling on Burmese authorities to release the detainees, as well as asking foreign governments to try to influence or pressure the regime. Visitors to the campaign website can add their name to a petition calling for the reporters’ release.

Officially, the Burmese government does not recognize the existence of political prisoners, saying that all those incarcerated in Burmese prisons are criminals. The United Nations says there are about 2,100 political prisoners in Burma, 17 of which are DVB journalists. DVB is naming only five of them for security reasons, but is campaigning to have all of the reporters freed.

Second Most Jailed Journalists

Burma holds the second-highest number of jailed journalists of any country in the world per capita, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

“We are seen as enemies of the state,” said Toe Zaw Latt, a DVB editor based in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, who opened the Free VJ (video journalists) campaign in Bangkok.

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Sithu Zeya, a DVB reporter serving eight years in jail in Burma. Photo, DVB

DVB was set up in 1992 by exiled dissidents and opposition politicians to make up for the news and information gap inside Burma, where media is either state-operated or has to first clear stories with the army’s censors. Foreign journalists are usually not allowed to work in Burma.

Besides DVB, other external Burmese news agencies include Mizzima and The Irrawaddy. (Note: I am a regular contributor to Irrawady.) Unable to sell in their natural marketplace inside Burma, these agencies are partially supported by donor governments and private philanthropies as a means to ensure there is some uncensored Burmese news.

Undercover reporters are crucial to this effort and, in DVB’s case, supplied much of the internationally viewed footage from the 2007 “Saffron Revolution,” when monks and civilians took to the streets all over Burma in protest, first against rising prices, and later against military rule, before a savage army crackdown and widespread arrests of protestors.

The Perils of Undercover Journalism

I attended DVB’s campaign event and press conference in Bangkok, where I met Aung Htun, a DVB undercover journalist. “Aung Htun” is actually his pseudonym, as he is fearful of retribution against his family back in Burma. He had a narrow escape from the Burmese police while filming the 2007 protests.

“I heard that some of the 88 students were gathering in Rangoon (Burma), that there would be a demonstration,” he told me. “I arrived late, though, and the demonstration was over.”

With military intelligence and informers likely still keeping an eye on the location, Aung Htun quickly realized that his presence there would draw attention, even though his camera was hidden and there was no overt indication of his hidden profession.

“I was soon stopped by plainclothes guys, who asked me why I was walking around this street,” he said. He was promptly taken to a nearby government office, and questioning began.

“Who are you? What are you doing here today? Where do you live?”

Moved to City Hall

As a crowd gathered outside, apparently in reaction to word getting out that someone had been taken for questioning to the building, the officials decided to move Aung Htun to Rangoon’s City Hall.

“They did not want provoke another gathering or demonstration,” he said. By that stage, they found his videocamera, hidden in a backpack, and at City Hall they asked him if he was a journalist. He replied no, and when they asked him to show them what he had recorded, he said he had nothing, even as he realized that they did not know how to operate the camera.

“I ran the camera on shooting mode,” he said. It was a simple ruse, but enough to convince them that he had not recorded any demonstrations.

Most likely, Aung Htun was let go as a ploy by authorities hoping that he would lead them to other DVB reporters and expose a wider network of clandestine Burmese journalists.

“I was one of the lucky ones,” he said.

An Imprisoned ‘Fourth Estate’

In his inaugural address, Burma’s new president, Thein Sein, referred to the media as the “fourth estate.” However, the speech came just after Maung Muang Zeya — one of the five DVB reporters highlighted in the campaign, was sentenced to 13 years in jail.

David Mathieson, Burma expert at Human Rights Watch, is skeptical that the fourth estate reference means any relaxation of Burma’s notorious media restrictions.

“Mendacity is the main aspect of the message in Burma these days,” he said at the DVB campaign launch. “The Burmese authorities have come up with ‘a military-parliamentary complex’ to fashion an image that some reform is taking place, when in reality they are just making small, token concessions here and there.”

Burma held elections for the first time in two decades last November, which resulted in the military and its allied civilian party holding 83 percent of all seats in the new parliament. All but four of the new government ministers are from the army. Nonetheless, the “new” government, headed by a president who was a general and prime minister under the “old” junta, is trying to sell itself as a reformed and reformist entity.

After decades of economic decline at home, ordinary Burmese are among the poorest people in Asia. Between 3 million to 5 million Burmese now live in Thailand, working menial jobs, and hundreds of thousands more have migrated elsewhere in the region. Tens of thousands of others have been resettled in the United States and other Western countries, part of a program for refugees fleeing political oppression in Burma.

Showing that official restrictions are likely to continue behind a reformist facade, the new government has already banned Skype and other forms of Internet telephony, which have been growing in popularity due to the high cost of mobile telephone use and overseas calls in Burma.

Low Net Penetration

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Internet use is low in Burma, and the government controls the country’s Internet service providers (ISPs), meaning that a new media-driven protest movement, along the lines of Tunisia or Egypt, is unlikely to emerge in Burma right now. Freedom House ranks Burma the second-worst country in the world for oppression of Internet freedom, and estimates that only 1 percent of the country’s population has access to the web.

Undercover reporting will therefore remain crucial to getting news about Burma to the outside world.

If Burma’s rulers are really moving toward reform and a freer media environment, undercover reporting will not be necessary, and journalists will not face decades in jail for reporting the news. With that in mind, DVB is appealing to the new government to live up to the lip service it is making to democratization, by freeing the journalists.

“A democracy does not keep reporters in jail,” Toe Zaw Latt said at the campaign launch.

However, the Burmese government has a poor track record of responding positively to international lobbying on political or human rights issues.

Launching a high-profile campaign can help, at least based on precedent elsewhere.

Marwaan Macaan Markar, a Sri Lankan correspondent for Inter-Press News, said the assistance of groups such as CPJ and Reporters Without Borders was crucial in helping threatened journalists in his own country flee abroad, and to raise awareness about cases when reporters were jailed or tortured.

“It is always a difficult decision on whether or not to go public or international in these cases,” he said. “It can really antagonize the government concerned.”

Simon Roughneen is an Irish journalist usually based in southeast Asia. He writes for Los Angeles Times, Asia Times, The Irrawaddy, ISN, South China Morning Post and others. He is a radio correspondent affiliated to Global Radio News and has reported for RTÉ, BBC, CBS, CBC Canada, Fox News, and Voice of America. He has worked in and reported from over 30 countries.

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