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Journalists rally to free jailed colleague

DVB staffers in Rangoon call for reporter Zaw Pe's release. (PHOTO: DVB)

Burma’s reporters took to the streets of two cities on Friday to rally support for greater press freedom. About 100 demonstrators amassed in Prome, Pegu Division, while dozens gathered in Mon State capital Moulmein.

Demonstrators demanded the immediate release of DVB video journalist Zaw Pe, who was recently sentenced to one year in prison on charges of trespassing and disturbing a civil servant. The protestors emphasised that the right to report on issues of public concern, especially in public spaces, must be protected to allow Burma to develop a robust media landscape.

The larger rally was held without an assembly permit, but no one has yet been arrested for participation. DVB’s Prome correspondent, Than Htike Aung, said that demonstrators were warned by local police but refused to dissipate.

“We marched along the main road… and we were stopped by the superintendent of Prome Police Station,” he said, “but we refused to follow his order to desist. We told him he can press any charges on us that he wished.”

Burma’s controversial Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Law requires prior approval for all public gatherings, where the intention is to publicly express opinion. The law has been widely admonished, with critics claiming that authorities frequently abuse it by targeting certain outspoken activists.

In Moulmein, where a permit was granted, local reporters were joined by members of the Southern-Burma Journalists Network , the Myanmar Journalists Association and correspondents from neighbouring Karen state.

One demonstrator, Hmu Eain Zaw, plainly explained the group’s agenda: “We call for the release of all reporters unfairly imprisoned, and for the freedom to allow reporters to cover the news in public spaces.”

Zaw Pe, DVB’s Magwe Division correspondent, was sentenced on 7 April and is currently incarcerated in Magwe Division’s Thayet prison. In August 2012, he and another civilian were arrested for investigating a Japanese scholarship programme in Magwe’s schools.

This is the second time Zaw Pe has been jailed for his journalistic work; In 2010, he was jailed for two years because he shot video without a licence while covering a water shortage in central Burma.

Five journalists still await a verdict on charges of disclosing state secrets after publishing an investigative report about an alleged chemical weapons facility in late January.

Yet another journalist, Ma Khine of Eleven Media, spent more than two months in jail for charges of trespassing, using abusive language, and defamation. The charges were brought against her following a scheduled interview with a lawyer for a report about corruption.

The dissolution of Burma’s notorious censorship board in 2012 prompted a wave of optimism for press freedom in the country, though the subsequent arrest of several journalists, discretionary warnings for foreign press and a heated debacle over new regulations have raised a few flags.

Burma is currently ranked 145th of 180 nations monitored in the latest World Press Freedom Index, a yearly appraisal by France-based Reporters Without Borders.