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Token Internet freedom gesture amid continued draconian jailings

Part of a 2010 interactive installation in  Grand Central Terminal in New York created for a Human Rights Watch event on behalf of Burma's political prisoners
Part of a 2010 interactive installation in Grand Central Terminal in New York created for a Human Rights Watch event on behalf of Burma's political prisoners

JWT via Human Rights Watch

Numerous IFEX members are stepping up pressure on the new government of Burma, which still detains approximately 2,000 political prisoners despite its interest in convincing the international community to end economic sanctions and support its chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2014.

This week, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) issued a comprehensive report on the press freedom record of President Thein Sein's government. The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Human Rights Watch have also issued statements calling for the immediate release of the unjustly jailed bloggers, artists and activists, many of whom serve multi-decade sentences. According to SEAPA, almost a dozen journalists are among those imprisoned, most of whom worked undercover for exiled news organisations Irawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima News.

"The release of journalists and some 2,000 political prisoners should be central to ASEAN's consideration to accord ASEAN chairmanship to Burma," said Gayathry Venkiteswaran, SEAPA executive director.

The IFEX organisations urged the international community not to be appeased by recent, small gestures in the right direction. This week, for example, Internet users could access previously banned sites like YouTube, Reuters, Irrawaddy and Democratic Voice of Burma, according to Irrawaddy and RSF. But Internet café users are still subject to video camera surveillance and monitoring, according to CPJ's report.

Most of the prisoners were jailed by the former military junta, which Thein Sein's government replaced after a democratic election in November 2010. Since then, however, Burma has continued to dole out draconian punishments for those who speak out.

Last week, 23-year-old Sithu Zeya was handed an additional 10 years in connection with photos he took following a 2010 bomb explosion, report Mizzima News, CPJ and RSF. In August, an army officer was sentenced to 10 years for criticising the government's reconciliation efforts, report Mizzima News and Human Rights Watch.

In August, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomas Ojea Quintana, interviewed jailed journalists and activists who reported sleep and food deprivation and beatings. In a hopeful sign, Burma's Lower House of Parliament proposed amnesty for all political prisoners following Quintana's visit, Human Rights Watch reports.

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