DVB Multimedia Group

Burmese VJs risking lives for freedom

Khin Maung Win
Nov 30, 2009 (DVB), It is unlikely that 'T' knows that he is being honoured and celebrated around the world these days.

'T', along with his colleague 'Z', shot video images that were made into 'Orphans of Burma's Cyclone', a documentary film that last week won the prestigious Rory Peck Trust Feature Award. Hopefully, one day 'T' and 'Z' will celebrate together. Instead, today, 'T' languishes in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, and 'Z' is in hiding.

The searing images of the 2007 monk protests in Burma made it onto television screens around the world thanks to the courage of underground videojournalists (VJs) who risked their lives to document the inspiring and tragic events of the protest, also known as the Saffron Revolution.

The murder of a Japanese journalist by Burmese troops on 27 September 2007 at the height of the Saffron Revolution, caught on tape by VJs, made headlines around the world. As a result of the continuous, rapid dissemination of images, the Burmese military regime realized the world was watching. This was the key factor in ensuring that the death toll from the 2007 protests was closer to 100 than 3000, the number brutally murdered by the regime when it put down the 1988 nationwide uprising.

Just months after the violent repression of the Saffron Revolution, 'T' and 'Z' along with other VJs, played a key role in filming the worst natural disaster in Burmese history, cyclone Nargis, which hit lower Burma on 2 May 2008. The disaster left 140,000 dead and 2.5 million homeless, in the face of inaction and indifference by the military regime. The regime denied access to international humanitarian and rescue workers, as well as foreign journalists.

Official media in the country reported nothing of the impact of the disaster, but images of the scale and extent of the damage captured and dispatched by courageous VJs appeared in mainstream media around the world. The VJs' images rendered indisputable the desperate and immediate need for humanitarian aid. The US, UK and France invoked the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine, and sent their naval ships into Burmese waters. Finally, the regime agreed to accept international humanitarian aid, which resulted in countless saved lives.

For six months after the cyclone hit, knowing the significant risks involved, 'Z' and 'T' followed a group of children orphaned by the cyclone. It is that footage that was edited into a documentary, and that won them the Rory Peck award.

The journalists have paid a high price for this award, which honours Rory Peck, killed while filming the 1993 siege of the Russian parliament. Peck's wife, Juliet, and friends created the Rory Peck Trust, which has shone a light this year on the role of VJs working for DVB. That role is compellingly drawn in 'Burma VJ', the extraordinary, award-winning film that has been shortlisted for the 2009 Oscars. The film engages the protests through the eyes of DVB VJs, from the high of protesters amassing by the thousands, to the low of life-threatening raids by the Burmese troops.

In addition to the honour of this recent award, and the organization's spotlight in Burma VJ, DVB has received the highest of compliments from the Burmese regime, which has publicly denounced DVB as the worst media. It claims that DVB widely disseminates false news and information about Burma. Less benignly, the regime conducted a comprehensive crackdown on the DVB journalist network in the aftermath of the Saffron Revolution. At present, more than a dozen DVB VJs are serving prison terms, some as long as 65 years.

The cost incurred by these VJs raises ethical questions about underground assignments by DVB, which the media organization asks itself daily. But the answer to those questions lies in the stories of the VJs themselves.

One of the journalists working for the network inside Burma is a former political prisoner from Myinchan prison in central Burma. He assumed that Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch would have publicized the torture and death of several dozen political prisoners, or the many others who developed mental illness as a result of extreme torture in that prison in the mid-1990s. But when he was released, he realized that the information blackout imposed by the regime blocks even these cases from coming to light. His choice to be a pioneer, helping to establish the DVB network across the country, is based on this experience.

As Joshua, the main character in Burma VJ, says, young Burmese starving for freedom believe that the absence of free media prolongs military rule and the suffering of the people. These young people played a major role in filming and reporting the Saffron Revolution. Their work has not only diminished the death toll, but also ensured timely responses from the international community, a rarity in the past.

This international response to the images has resulted in an ongoing hunt by the regime for DVB VJs. 'T' was arrested four months ago and charged under the Electronics Act, which allows for prison terms of up to 15 years for filming and sending information out of the country.

Aung San Suu Kyi has said "there are two prisons in Burma – one with walls, and another without." DVB VJs have chosen to risk imprisonment within the walls of terrifying places like Insein in order to battle the nefarious prison without walls that Burma has become for its people. 'T', 'Z' and their fellow DVB VJs have become some of Burma's, and the world's, most important and courageous freedom fighters. For that alone, the Rory Peck award is well-deserved.

Khin Maung Win is deputy executive director of the Democratic Voice of Burma