Burmese cameramen jailed for defying regime

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If a shocking documentary about the fate of Burma's cyclone orphans wins a prestigious video-journalism award in London tomorrow night, it will be some time before one of the men who shot it gets a chance to celebrate.

Six months after shooting on the film was completed, the cameraman known only as T was arrested coming out of an internet café in Rangoon and taken to the city's Insein prison. Last week, after four months in jail, he was told he would be charged with the new offence of filming without government permission, which carries a minimum jail sentence of 10 years.

The Rory Peck awards are given annually to freelance video cameramen and documentary makers who run the sort of risks which Peck, who was shot dead while filming the siege of the Russian parliament in 1993, took every day. In Burma the challenges are rather different. The risks of getting shot or bombed while filming in the peaceable, agrarian Irrawaddy delta south of Rangoon are low. But, in other respects, this must be one of the most dangerous assignments in the world.

The film follows a number of children orphaned by Cyclone Nargis, which struck southern Burma in May 2008, killing 140,000 people in the delta and making 2.4 million homeless, as they struggle to survive in the absence of their parents, and with negligible assistance from the state. T and his colleague, another Burmese identified as Z who is currently hiding out in Thailand, even filmed an appearance by General Thein Sein, the junta's Prime Minister, before a group of desperate villagers telling them to get back to work and to expect nothing from the state for some time.

T joins 13 other cameramen working for the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who have been jailed by the Burmese authorities since the Saffron Revolution in 2007, the mass uprising led by monks which shook Asia's most repressive regime to the core. Ever since the coup d'état of 1962 which brought General Ne Win to power, Burma's ruling generals have done everything in their power to control the images of the country which reach the outside world. Foreign journalists are almost never let in, and those who enter as tourists are frequently deported. Ubiquitous spies make it immensely risky for Burmese to blow the whistle on the regime.

But the internet and the shrinking size of video cameras have given dissidents new ways of getting their words and pictures out – as the junta discovered in September 2007, when freelance video cameramen working for DVB shot the swelling protest marches of the monks and sent them abroad. The pictures were picked up by news networks around the world, giving the regime its worst publicity for decades.

To prevent the same thing happening again, the authorities passed a new law banning filming without government permission, and began locking up for long terms those who defied it. Three of those who filmed the monks' protests are serving long sentences, but the law has done nothing to deter their colleagues.

Khin Maung Win, deputy head of DVB, said, "We had 30 journalists active during the Saffron Revolution, half of whom are now inactive – either in jail, in hiding or in Thailand. But now we have about 100 more, spread all over the country, even in Burma's new capital, Naypyidaw."

He went on, "We don't normally publicise the arrest of our cameramen, but we decided to do so this time because of the awards. This award is very important for us – if we win it will be the first success by Burmese journalists. The Rory Peck award is all about taking risks, which certainly applies to us. And we are proud that we can do something to inform the international audience." DVB's main activity is beaming a two-hour package of news and current affairs to Burma every day by satellite which the regime has found it impossible to block.

With more and more of its workers incarcerated, DVB now faces the growing challenge of supporting them and their families through their long ordeal. Whether or not "Orphans of Burma's Cyclone", a Quicksilver Media production for Channel 4's Dispatches, wins tomorrow, the Rory Peck Trust has promised to contribute to the effort of keeping them alive and sane.

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