By Joseph Allchin
Three video journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma were among the 6,539 prisoners released in an amnesty last week.
The Oslo-based exiled media outlet now has 14 staff behind bars but for security reasons is unable to divulge the identity of its released journalists, some of whom may return to a working environment where laws criminalising freedom of speech are still in force.
Geraldine May, who coordinates a DVB-run campaign to free its journalists, said: “We are deeply concerned about those still behind bars, and all journalists who are criminalised by the government’s laws and whom, as a result, are threatened with unacceptable harassment and detention for doing an essential job within a democracy.”
The general prisoner amnesty coincided with Thidangyut Buddhist full moon and was described as a meritorious deed by the government of Thein Sein, rather than a policy change. The government and its newly-appointed National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) refuses to acknowledge the jailed activists, journalists, MPs and so on as political. The NHRC describes them as “what are referred to as prisoners of conscience”.
In a statement put out by the group prior to the amnesty, it only called for prisoners “who do not pose a threat to the stability of state and public tranquillity” to be released, rather than recognising the right of individuals to challenge the state in a democracy.
This has caused critics to label the amnesty as similar to those carried out by the military regime, marking no break in policy and asking questions of the self-avowed commitments of the new government.
Critics such as the Paris-based media watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, were swift to condemn the release as superficial, stating that all journalists behind bars should be freed if widely-heralded reforms were to be taken seriously.
Amnesty International called for laws used to silence journalists, such as the Electronics Act, to be repealed. The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement that, “The laws that put them behind bars are still on the books and can be used again at any time. If the government wants to show it is really different from its predecessors, it should convene parliament and repeal laws criminalising peaceful political speech.”
Indeed the prominent comedian, Zarganar, who was included in the amnesty, told DVB that he “began to have doubts about the so-called reform because I don’t understand why everyone in prison wasn’t released.”
President Thein Sein had appeared to acknowledge the necessity of a free media and rights for all, including journalists, by unblocking previously banned news websites, including the BBC, Reuters and DVB.