Khin Mau Win left Burma 23 years ago. He was part of a young group of people that took to political activism in the late 1980s. In recent weeks some of his fellow activists have been freed, as part of the state’s mass-amnesty which has seen hundreds of prisoners released.
Khin is now the director of Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an independent, and exiled, media outlet committed to responsible journalism. He was a founding member in 1992, worked as a bureau chief in Thailand until 2001 and then moved to Oslo, where is now based.
A group of DVB reporters are also among those who have been leaving jail in recent weeks and months.
Here, he talks with the Doha Centre for Media Freedom about the future of press freedom, his dream of returning to Burma and why recent signs of democracy must be welcomed with caution.
Congratulations on the release of your reporters. How many had been in jail?
Thirteen of our journalists were behind bars until January 12 . We had four more, but they were released in October 2011.
The longest serving reporter was Win Maw, who had been in since 2007. They were all arrested in connection with their work.
Some were also arrested in 2009 and others in 2010.
They were given sentences of up to 65 years sometimes. It was a big surprise for us for them to be released like this.
What kind of conditions did they face?
They are treated like enemies of the state, that’s why they were arrested. The government hates them. A few of them suffered in prisons. But since they have been out, they can see the difference. They feel more free, more open and even more optimistic.
Our reporters are video journalists. With print or radio, you can gather news by phone. For television, you need to be on the ground. That is the main reason they were arrested and then imprisoned. They were filming issues including a Monks’ demonstration in 2007, a cyclone disaster in 2008 and a bomb explosion in 2010.
In addition to the DVB reporters, there were some other journalists released in recent weeks. What does this amnesty mean and, using your own experience, how would you say these changes are affecting press freedom?
There has been a lot of positive developments regarding press freedom. There is a long list including:
• State control newspapers used to carry slogans denouncing the DVB. This practice has now been dropped.
• The DVB website was previously blocked in the country. It’s now unblocked, allowing users to access the site freely.
• Government ministers and officials previously denied interview requests the media. They are now giving interviews to DVB willingly and frequently.
• Interviews with DVB senior staff and journalists are being published inside Burmese journals for the first time.
• Local media is now publishes pieces praising our live coverage
• DVB underground journalists in the country have been operating more freely, covering important events previously considered sensitive without any problems
The immediate changes are tangible so there must be an air of excitement. How do you welcome them?
It’s a big improvement. Our journalists in the country are carrying out their reporting quite openly. Since summer last year there has been some liberalisation.
We are not a democracy yet. We have a democracy goal. Since we are not there yet, there is a good reason to be cautious. There is nothing wrong in being cautious but at the same time we have to be realistic. What is happening these days, we couldn’t have even dreamt of it before.
Does censorship still exist in Burma and in what form?
Yes. It is not now clear, in terms of censorship. Lately, they’ve said there won’t be any, but technically it’s still there. Many laws prohibiting the freedom of expression are still in place, like the video act and the secret of information act . One day, we have to remove these draconian laws. Burma has now relaxed this regulation on some items of news. Sports and culture news pieces don’t need censorship. We don’t have any censorship issues at DVB. We couldn’t do what we wanted to in the country, that’s why we had to leave.
It must have been a difficult decision to leave your country. Do you think about returning?
That is our dream and our hope. We will be back one day. Now we are testing the limits. We applied for a visa for the country, we want to legalise our operation. That’s the beginning of our return. I’ve been outside for 23 years already. The station has been in operation for 20 years. In fact, 2012 is our 20 year anniversary. We will celebrate very soon, ideally in the country.
What are your predictions for press freedom in Burma in 2012?
I think it will become better. In context, there is an election on April 1 in which opposition leaders will contest. We are confident that Aung San Suu Kyi and her colleagues will be elected. She’s a democracy campaigner, so once she’s in, she will not allow the situation to be worse. We are hopeful the situation will be improved.
But with such a long history of media repression, do you think a culture of self censorship exists? Will that be hard to remove?
Without official censorship, I think self-censorship will be gone.
At the moment, there are no privately-owned daily newspapers. The state controls the newspapers and the government heavily controls the broadcast media. There are private weekly and monthlies. There are a few private television stations, but they are only allowed to do entertainment. There are no news channels.
There needs to be more private media. They should be free to carry the news like other media in a democratic country. As of now, it’s becoming more open. It’s not perfect, many areas still have government control, but that will change this year.
Since last year, many world leaders have been quick to congratulate Burma and forged better ties with the country. Do you think they have acted in haste?
I think world leaders are making the right comments, as have many Burmese. We will work on these changes, we need the changes and we believe they are genuine. The changes as of now will bring Burma into full democracy. But I would like to stress my earlier point; we are not a democracy yet.
Published on the Doha Centre for Media Freedom website on 19th January, 2012