It’s been two years almost to the day that Hla Hla Win vanished. The 27-year-old Burmese journalist had been on an assignment in central Burma interviewing monks. Later her family found out that she’d been arrested and sentenced by a military court to 27 years in prison.
Hla Hla Win was a video journalist working for Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a Norwegian-based news organisation, highly respected for its independent reporting from inside the tightly controlled country.
DVB is viewed by rulers of Burma (officially known as Myanmar) as a dissident voice and openly shunned by the country’s dictatorship. Despite recent elections, which made an effort to present the country as moving towards democracy, Burma is still fiercely controlled by the military.
Hla Hla Win was charged for violating Burma’s Electronics Act, which forbids Burmese citizens from posting any information on the internet that could be seen as being critical of the government.
After the Saffron revolution of 2007, pictures and footage of the massive monk-led protests and the following repression were widely disseminated by the internet. Since then, most of the protestors who were arrested and harshly punished by the state were charged under the Electronics Act, which carries a minimum sentence of 20 years imprisonment.
While Hla Hla Win serves her prison sentence in Kathar under difficult conditions, hundreds of people from around the world came together last week to express their solidarity towards her struggle. A campaign called Free Burma VJ, led by DVB, kicked off last week in Bangkok, Paris, London and Geneva.
Protesters gathered outside the Burmese embassies in these cities holding placards, wearing masks and t-shirts to demand the release of Hla Hla Win and that of 17 other detained DVB journalists.
Geraldine May, the campaign coordinator for Free Burma VJ condemns the repressive laws: “They are excuses that the government uses to arrest journalists working for DVB. They first arrest the journalists under suspicion of violating these laws and interrogate and torture them further to gain information,” she says.
The campaign hopes to raise awareness about the harsh treatment meted out to Burmese journalists for performing their role as watchdogs. Though the junta makes a show of ignoring dissidents, May believes that in reality, they’re keeping a close eye on developments: “ We know that many users in Burma are checking our website. And some of those users are working for the government. So that is a kind of response from the military; they are aware of what we are doing.”
No press freedom
According to the latest survey conducted by Reporters Without Borders, Burma ranks 174 out of 178 countries when it comes to press freedom.
Foreign journalists can only enter Burma, undercover at great personal risk. If caught, they face detention and deportation from the country with a good chance of never being let in again. But it’s the local journalists working for dissident media such as DVB who face the toughest penalties. Burma’s jails are full of people, some of whom may have just drawn a cartoon or published a poem that upset someone at the top.
Soe Thwe*, a DVB journalist in Yangon, says there are only a handful of people who know what he does for a living. “My parents and my family have no idea. Only my partner knows that I work for DVB. I don’t want them to know because that’s not good for my security and theirs as well,” he says.
He explains that he often disguises himself before going for an assignment. “I sometimes wear a scarf, sometimes glasses, sometimes even a fake moustache. The military intelligence is always around and I don’t want to be noticed,” Soe Thwe says.
Another DVB VJ from Mandalay, Myen Thu* says there have been instances when she has been questioned by the state police but let off for lack of evidence. “It’s really scary, you always have to watch your back. And carrying a video camera alone can get you into prison. Also, once they are suspicious, you have to be extra careful,” she explains.
These people - the journalists of DVB and others like them – are the keepers of the truth in a country that has in effect declared truth to be Public Enemy No. 1. And they are clear about the reasons why they take such appalling risks day after day: “I love my country. This is not how it’s supposed to be. It has to be free. There has to be democracy and I will do whatever I can to promote democracy,” says Myen Thu.
*Some of the names in this piece have been changed.