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Artists under fire; "Irrawaddy" magazine remembers 1988 uprising

"Irrawaddy" magazine has been fighting the junta's censorship for 17 years

Inside Burma, a photojournalist is facing a possible 23 years behind bars, a political hip hop artist recently released from prison was banned from performing at a charity event, and a dance troupe is being forced to perform in front of a censorship board, reports Mizzima News. Outside the country, the exiled editor of "Irrawaddy" magazine marks the August anniversary of the 1988 uprising that was ruthlessly crushed by the same regime that continues to silence dissident artists and writers, reports Reporters Without Borders (RSF).

Photojournalist Sithu Zeya was just doing his job when he took pictures of the aftermath of bomb explosions at a Rangoon water festival in 2010. But the Burmese junta threw him in jail with an eight-year sentence, using its draconian Immigration Act and Unlawful Association Act. He is now facing an additional seven to 15 years on top of the original sentence, under the Electronics Transactions Law - which bars a citizen from electronically disseminating information considered to be a threat to the security of the junta. His appeal of the first charge was rejected on 9 August. Family members say Zeya has been tortured and is now being held at Insein Prison.

In February, Zeya's father and fellow journalist Maung Maung Zeya with the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) were sentenced to 13 years in prison under the same laws. In July, journalists' associations reported that Sithu Zeya was tortured into revealing that Maung Maung Zeya is an underground journalist.

Meanwhile, artist Zay Yar Thaw, a member of Generation Wave, an underground youth group that spreads pro-democracy messages using visual art and hip hop songs, was told that if he performed at a charity event, it would be cancelled by authorities. The event was scheduled to take place on 6 August in order to raise funds for a home for sick and elderly people with no family members in Rangoon.

In response, Zay Yar Thaw said, "The government has declared that it is a democratic government, so it has the responsibility to explain who has imposed a ban on me, and why."

He was arrested in 2008 for possessing foreign currency and for founding Generation Wave, which was declared illegal. He was sentenced to four years in prison and then recently released on 17 May after the president of Burma commuted his sentence. Most of the Generation Wave members were also arrested.

In July, the chairman of Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise decreed that traditional dance troupes who want to make a video of a performance must now deliver a full-dress rehearsal in front of censorship board officials three days prior to a performance. The chairman says he intends to weed out vulgar jokes about government officials.

In neighbouring Thailand, editor of the Burmese exile news magazine "Irrawaddy", Aung Zaw, was featured in an interview with RSF about the publication's history and how it covers the political and human rights situation in Burma.

Aung Zaw participated in the 1988 uprising against the Burmese regime's strongman, Gen. Ne Win, forcing him to resign.

"My comrades and I participated in this political movement, which was without precedent in Burma. I rubbed shoulders with many leading figures from the Burmese pro-democracy movement during the demonstrations. I soaked up the ideas of these respected journalists and writers," said Aung Zaw.

But many democracy activists and journalists were soon forced to flee the country, including Aung Zaw, by the military coup that left 3,000 dead.

"Irrawaddy" was started in 1993 by Burmese journalists in exile in Bangkok and has been exposing the Burmese junta's corruption and violent silencing of dissidents for 17 years. It is now based in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. The magazine employs 35 people, including journalists, video-reporters, photographers, web designers and administrative staff. Reporters routinely go to the Thailand-Burma and India-Burma borders to gather news from inside Burma. Reporters also get information from sources that work for the regime.

A small group of "Irrawaddy" correspondents work underground in Burma. It is very dangerous work. For instance, one journalist was sentenced to seven years in prison in 1995 simply because he was a reporter.

The magazine also reports on the lives of Burmese refugees who live in the lawless regions along the Burmese border.

Although the magazine is censored inside Burma, its articles are closely read by the junta and opposition members. Burmese citizens circumvent government censorship by using proxies, and more than 35,000 Burmese visit the Irrawaddy.org website from within the country each month.

The magazine currently faces a restricted media landscape and a funding shortage. In recent months, the Burmese government has banned the use of Skype and raided Internet cafés across the country. In this climate of fear and censorship "Irrawaddy" needs your help. To make a donation, please contact: news (@) irrawaddy.org

You can also join the campaign to free imprisoned actor and comedian Zarganar by signing this petition.
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