Independent media in the junta-run Union of Myanmar, the Southeast Asian nation know formerly as Burma, is nearly a misnomer. News rarely reaches the outside world from the closed country, where journalists are subject to arrest, harassment and violence by authorities.
But a new documentary is devoted to telling the story of those who risk it all to report the truth. "Burma VJ," produced by Danish director Anders Østergaard, follows a band of undercover video journalists (VJs) during September 2007, when Buddhist monks staged peaceful protests in the streets, in the face of harsh government crackdowns.
The undercover video journalists (VJs), from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo, Norway-based news organization, smuggled footage to Thailand via trusted couriers, and broadcasted back into Burma and to the outside world via satellite.
The DVB, launched in 1992, is "a vital source of information for the Burmese people," a former Washington Post Burma correspondent, who requested to remain anonymous, told IJNet this week. "Along with BBC [British Broadcasting Corporation] and RFA [Radio Free Asia], DVB provides just about the only credible news on events within the country."
The 84-minute film follows anonymous 27-year-old journalist "Joshua," who chronicles the protests despite debilitating fear. “When I pick up the camera, my hands start shaking ... I can feel my heartbeat,” he describes in the film. “If they catch me with my camera I will go to jail."
If caught, journalists in Burma often face harsh prison sentences -- as long as 59 years in 2008, according to the press freedom group Freedom House.
"The current regime's power is rooted in the silencing of the population," the former Post correspondent says. "They rule by force [and] use it when dissent takes the form of street protests or anything deemed vaguely subversive."
Early in the protests, Joshua is eyed by a soldier while filming. His camera is confiscated but he is released, and he escapes to a DVB base outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand. In Thailand, he collects footage from journalists in Burma, and passes it on to DVB headquarters in Oslo.
Inside the country, the VJs continue shooting around the clock. "Their compulsive instinct to shoot what they witness, rather than any deliberate heroism, turns their lives into that of freedom fighters," the Burma VJ Web site reads. Their footage, including the repression and murder of monks and journalists, is disseminated around the world, providing an unprecedented view of the regime's repression.
"The film shows how courageous journalists can be when it comes to risking their lives and freedom,” says John Schidlovsky, director of the International Reporting Project (IRP), which co-sponsored a free showing of Burma VJ last week in Washington, D.C. “It’s remarkable what these journalists are willing to undertake to provide honest reporting to the outside world.”
When the uprising is completely repressed in late September, the government blames the DVB for disseminating false footage and fomenting unrest. Authorities locate and raid DVB headquarters in the former capital Rangoon, and kill three journalists.
But despite the deaths of protestors and journalists alike, Joshua vows to continue the fight for the truth. “I’ll go back to Burma," he says at the end of the film. "I’ll go through the mountains and see what I can do."