19 January 2012

IFEX members welcome release of journalists, bloggers

DVB video journalist Hla Hla Win's 27th birthday on 9 September 2011 was marked by protesters outside Burmese embassies in Bangkok, Geneva, Paris and London calling for her release
DVB video journalist Hla Hla Win's 27th birthday on 9 September 2011 was marked by protesters outside Burmese embassies in Bangkok, Geneva, Paris and London calling for her release
Democratic Voice of Burma
In a move showing the government's commitment to reform, Burma has released more than 650 prisoners in a presidential amnesty, including high-profile blogger Nay Phone Latt, five Democratic Voice of Burma journalists and leading musician-journalist Win Maw, report Mizzima News and other IFEX members. Of those released in this latest round of prison releases, 302 of them were political prisoners.

Journalists Win Maw, Sithu Zeya, Maung Maung Zeya, Hla Hla Win, Ngwe Soe Linn, Zaw Thet Htwe, Myint Naing, Thant Zin Aung and Nay Phone Latt were among those released from detention on 13 January, reports the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). Some of them had been serving sentences as long as 32 years for their reporting, says CPJ.

The mass release also included Min Ko Naing, a leader of the failed 1988 uprising who was considered by many to be the highest-profile dissident still behind bars. Nilar Thein, another veteran member of Burma's 88 Generation Students, and monk leader U Gambira were also released, confirmed Mizzima News and ARTICLE 19.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), unlike previous amnesties, this one was carried out under an article of the criminal procedure code, rather than article 204 of the Constitution - suggesting that it did not have the approval of the National Defence and Security Council.

According to RSF, after leaving jail, Sithu Zeya said, "I think [the President] is pretty decent as he is [enacting reforms] under a lot of pressure. But also it depends a lot on the men behind him; just one decent person won't make the change happen. We need all-inclusive cooperation from both sides to build a democratic system."

The number of documented political prisoners before the release ranges from 500 to 1,500, says ARTICLE 19. At least eight of those still detained are bloggers and journalists, says RSF. IFEX members are continuing to monitor lists of released detainees as they are made public.

"Unfortunately, without a free press or freedom of speech, we do not know how many political prisoners remain languishing in Burmese jails. We urge the international community to remember that without free expression, Burma can never be truly free," said ARTICLE 19 executive director Agnès Callamard.

Western governments have held out the release of political prisoners as a pre-condition for removing the economic and financial sanctions they maintain against Burma in response to the past military government's abysmal human rights record.

Thein Sein's military-backed but elected government has initiated a series of reforms since assuming office last March, such as an earlier general amnesty under which the comedian Zarganar was freed, as well as dialogue with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Other moves have included lifting blocks on foreign and exile news websites, including those frequently critical of the current and past military-backed regimes, and easing some restrictions on Burma's non-news media, such as giving them more freedom to report on government policies, reports CPJ.

The mass release comes on the heels of an announcement of a ceasefire between the Burmese government and the ethnic rebel group, the Karen National Union, reports ARTICLE 19. The Karen have fought for greater autonomy for more than 60 years.

"While recent signals have been positive from a press freedom perspective, there is still a long way to go before Burma's news media could be considered even remotely free," said CPJ. "Until Thein Sein's government ends pre-publication censorship of local publications and amends the various laws used to repress the press, Burma will remain among the most repressive media environments in the world."

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