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More than 120 free expression advocates from around the world gathered this week in Montevideo, Uruguay, at the International Freedom of Expression eXchange (IFEX) General Meeting. As a priority, 20 participants set up a Burma Action Group to support protesters and journalists in their struggle against the recent military crackdown in the country.

The group, led by the Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), plans to focus on ensuring an investigation into the death of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, the five remaining reporters in jail and the plight of Burmese journalists in exile.

Conference participants, led by Soe Myint of Burmese exile-run news agency Mizzima News, called for a fact-finding mission to the notoriously closed regime, and practical ways to get news out to the international community. Myint says there is a real need for large amounts of technology equipment that can be easily concealed (like hidden cameras and walkie-talkies), simply understood, and easily set up and taken down.

"We need tools to overcome the government crackdown," said Myint. "It is time for us to prepare for the worst."

The Burma Action Group also called for international pressure on China, Burma's largest trading partner, which is protecting its image in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. "China doesn't want Burma to be the next Darfur," said Myint, urging that protests continue at both Burmese and Chinese embassies.

Burma is far from the only free expression crisis. According to Freedom House, media freedom around the world has declined for the fifth year in a row.

At the conference, hosted by World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters (AMARC) and the Institute of Press and Society (Instituto Prensa y Sociedad, IPYS), participants examined the cause of the decline and the most pressing threats to free expression: impunity, media concentration, criminal press laws and Internet censorship.

And the Poderes Paralelos, or "parallel powers" in Latin America - the drug traffickers, local mafia, armed groups and paramilitaries, among others - that operate outside the reach of the law and make the region extremely dangerous for the media. Journalists are pressured, threatened, attacked or killed for reporting on issues related to the interests of these groups. Colombian reporter Orlando Sierra, for example, died in 2002 for his outspoken views on corruption involving local politicians in Manizales. Those behind his murder are still at large.

In a joint declaration, the Latin American groups at the conference, which have been developing a regional initiative on the issue, urged the whole IFEX network to make combating the poderes paralelos - and the problems of impunity and self-censorship that often accompany them - a major priority in the coming years. They also called upon the governments of the region "to take action in the face of the threats and guarantee, with concrete and legal actions, the exercise of free expression for journalists, media and all citizens."

As Rosa Maria Alfaro, a Peruvian academic in communication and development, pointed out in her keynote address, freedom of expression is the right of every person and not only of journalists. Journalists need to be "in better touch" with the people, she added. "It is important to connect journalists to social problems and citizen participation," she said, referring particularly to the Latin American experience.

Campaigning sessions were also devoted to advocating for human rights around the Beijing 2008 Games, the international mission to Nepal, and free expression violations across Africa. The Tunisia Monitoring Group discussed plans to protest the 20th anniversary of President Ben Ali's rule in Washington, D.C., in November at an event to which Tunisian activists, including recently freed lawyer Mohamed Abbou, will be invited.

Also at the conference, participants got practical, technical advice from experts during a one-day forum on information and communication technology (ICT). The experts divulged a slew of tips, including how to get around Internet censors, how to create and maintain a secure email address, ways to spread campaign news using easy movie-making software, and how to save money on telephone bills by setting up voice communications over the Internet.

The six-day conference, hosted with support from local groups Comunica and the Uruguayan Journalists Association (APU), concludes on 12 October. A follow-up report will be featured in next week's "IFEX Communiqué" and on the IFEX website.

Visit the sites of the ICT experts:
- OpenNet Initiative on how to circumvent the censors:
- Tactical Tech, "NGO in a Box Security Edition":
- IT+46, on how to implement a security strategy:
- Privaterra on how to protect your data:
- Association of Progressive Communications (APC) on online campaigning ideas:
(Photo: Soe Myint of Mizzima News addresses the IFEX General Meeting about the crisis in Burma. Photo courtesy of Erol Onderoglu)

(9 October 2007)

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