Monday, 3 September 2007

Broadcasting Burma: The Rise of Rangoon's Citizen Journalists

In this age of savvy citizen journalists, instantaneous images and 24-hour rolling news it’s rare for Burma’s plight to make the news. Why? The fact that the blighted country is run by one of the world's most repressive regimes might have something to do with it. Those who report news deemed critical of the ruling Junta not only themselves potentially face years of grisly torture in notorious prisons, but too run the risk of their families being persecuted.

However, there’s also another factor behind the conspicuous silence: Burma has a communications network so antiquated that few citizens could report a story to the outside world even if they dared. While the ruling Junta have failed by virtually every measure when it comes to raising the health and prosperity of their people, they’ve been astoundingly successful in past years in ensuring that their people stay locked off from the outside world. People with phone lines, internet, digital cameras and mobile phones are rare - even among the few who can afford them. And an extensive state intelligence network carefully monitors their contact.

As a result, the main means for getting news out of the country has long been bold (often reckless) journalists posing as tourists, or the human equivalent of carrier pigeon, only slower: pro-democracy activists seeking exile in neighbouring countries, or destitute and often malarial refugees pouring across the porous Thai border with horrific tales of rape, murder and destruction at the hands of the military junta. News agencies like the excellent Chiang Mai based The Irrawaddy and NGO’s like the laudable Free Burma Rangers, have long been zealously documenting and reporting these kinds of atrocities along the border. Occasionally footage has backed up the claims, and - when the suffering captured is deemed horrific enough - has resulted in a fleeting 30-60 second spot on international news networks, followed by a public whimper of dismay.

However, last weeks demonstrations in Rangoon against oil price hikes, and their capture on film, may be part of a new organic trend developing within Burma. Shaky images of peaceful protestors being manhandled into waiting trucks by gangs of junta sponsored thugs suggest that internal dissenters against the regime are getting bolder in their attempts to bring their country’s plight to the world’s attention. Within hours they were beamed across the world on CNN and BBC.

And this is better than seeing none at all.
Why? Because harrowing pictures like these may prove to be the much needed catalyst necessary to bring about action by the international community. Already the footage has caused an upsurge of interest in Burma on networks across the world, and Jim Carrey of all people has just released a call for Aung San Suu Kyi to be released.

Citizen journalism has arrived in Burma. And, while the risks to those who courageously capture the deplorable realities of life today in Burma are great, the potential rewards to the country as a whole are greater. Images today speak louder than words. Let’s hope in Burma’s case, the UN and its members are listening.

Watch Youtube videos of the anti-inflation demonstration in Rangoon HERE and HERE.


Life Out East said...

I think it's fair to say that these are not "anti-inflation" protests. The Burmese are not just miffed with the price of fuel.

Jacqueline said...

Thank you for the thoughtful analysis, and I agree that the efforts of the citizen journalists are incredibly valuable. I posted much more information about it on on the blog that is linked with my name; and if you're at all interested or have ideas/projects that relate to citizen journalism, you should check out the Knight News Challenge (also linked in my name).