This is a transcript of my phone-interview with Joshua. He’s been working as a VJ for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) since 2005. We talked about the general situation in the country and about the importance of digital technologies.
How would you describe the situation of press and broadcasting freedom in Burma?
It’s a difficult time for people, for real stories and the truth. Because the government is getting upper hand with the local press. Because they are using cronies and, you know, people like opportunists to function as propaganda specialists. They are considered as journalists in the Burmese media society. So, while they are covering stories with false information, at the same time they are… they understand how to write a story… to make it look good and governancially […]. So it’s really dangerous for the people that don’t understand, you know, how journalism can be tricky in a bad way.
The junta have a hard censorship. What exactly is forbidden? What can you actually do?
If we are talking about legal press in Burma, there is nothing we can do. I mean, they control the outcome of the press with the censorship vote and at the same time they control the media owners with licensing systems. It’s the… the junta, the licensings are going to be stopped. So… they need to survive, as a business, they have to obey to what the junta say. So as a legal press, you can’t do much -one good thing is, the social media became quite strong recently. So people are using facebook and blogs and others to express their feelings and the real stories. So there’s a good thing on the other side. But for the legal press we don’t have many options.
But at the same time the junta are known for just pulling the plug of the internet. What happens then?
Well, actually facebook is still on in Burma. And now the general use has… you know, it’s used to organize around the restrictions on the internet. I can see that the new generation has more advanced technologies than the junta. So they are always one step ahead. So the junta cannot stop them by stopping on the websites or anything.
Is there a censorship on websites in Burma?
Well, yes, they can ban many previews to go to democracy and human rights. You can not see any of the links. You can see the links in the google search page but if you go onto each one you cannot see 90% of them because they have banned, what is like […] human rights or freedom or democracy, these words are censored in google search. And another thing is, they ban many of the website of exile media groups. So what we do normally is, we copy and paste and use that might catch their attention. And we paste it into an email to spread it around. So it is a good way, you know, to share the messages that we got.
So you have an email network to get the news around?
Yes and, people post on facebook. You know, if we post a link on facebook, we cannot go to the link, because it’s banned. But if we copy and paste as a note or comments, we can do whatever we want. So we are doing the same thing.
What are other ways to get around the censorship?
Well, we use sometimes proxyservers but it takes a long long time for them to send. So, you know, people don’t want to try difficult options. So it’s the less popular way of using proxy. I mean, not a lot of people are trying that because it takes time.
You’ve been working in Burma as a Video Journalist. How would you describe your work?
Well, I am not satisfied in terms of what I can do. Because sometimes we, you know, we cannot always say that we are working for the Democratic Voice of Burma or we are working for exile media or something like that. We don’t have legal status as a journalists in Burma. So when we interview somebody, they want to know who we are, because they need to trust who is interviewing them. So if we cannot… when we cannot say who we are, we don’t get the insight of the opinions and insight of their minds. So, sometimes our pieces lack of public opinion and sometimes we have to do it without saying who we are. So, I am not happy about that because I think it’s totally restrictive. And another thing is… we don’t want to put anybody else at risk. So we have to blur their faces, we have to alter their voices and things like that. So we have lost the credibility of the interviews. So I want to improve these situations at least.
And, do you have the feeling that in general people are supportive of what you are doing or is the fear they might get in trouble when you are around stronger?
Well, they are happy to talk to us when they know who we are. But the problem is, they don’t exactly know what we are doing. Because sometimes we cannot say we are from DVB, reporting for exile Media or something like that. So the major problem is trust. We cannot build trust with people because we are secret, we are undercover. That’s the major problem. But when they know who we are, they are willing to talk. But it didn’t happen before 2007 September. I mean, before that time we had a really difficult time. But after 2007 September people realised the power of media and they are willing to share their stories with the journalists. It is an improvement that we could, you know, go for it. But at the same time, we still have a lack of many things, in terms of mainstream media principles. But still, people are willing to us if they know who we are.
Have you ever gotten into trouble for your work?
Oh well… I’ve been detained for a short time. I used a cover story that I prepared to tell them. And they believed it. So I was lucky. But I was detained about three times, shortly. One is about two weeks and two other times were like… hours of investigating and interrogation.
Knowing about the risk that your work carries… why are you doing it?
Because… I think it’s effective and I think it is one of the necessities for the liberation of Burma from the dictatorship. And I think there’s not a lot of people who can do this. Many people work in our team with us. But in terms of building trust with the general public, a lot of people feel, because they don’t understand… some points of being unbiased, independent and things like that, you know? So they are more like propaganda specialists from the government’s side. So they feel to win the hearts of the people. A lot of people think we have the state media on one side and we have exile propaganda people on the other side. So I think we need an unbiased, independent group of people who report what is happening on the ground. So we can inform and reform the general public. That’s what I’m doing. So I think it is really crucial and important. That’s why I’m still going on.
How would you describe the importance of digital technologies for your work?
Well… it’s essential. We need to learn everyday to get more and more advanced technologies. Because the government are also in it. We try to uncover Burma. And they are trying to cover it. And we could use digital technologies. They try to stop internet and they try to ban websites and television channels and things like that and we have to find new methods and techniques all the time so that we then get one step ahead of them. You know, in 2007 September, when they shot the journalist and the monks. You know, more and more people were sending out images to the international community. The first thing they did was, they broke the internet server down. But at that time we had technology that we could use satelite machines and things like that. So that… you know, we can keep going on despite the shutdown of the server.
What would you say has been the impact of your work so far?
Since I started, I remember I feel like, you know, having worked with foreign journalists; and I had a certain understanding of international media. And when I got to know them, I feel like… you know, they have a 24 hour broadcast system. And we don’t even get three minutes of the day. You know, when we switch on CNN or Al Jazeera or BBC, or anything, any national television or other media. We hear a lot about Afghanistan, a lot about Iraq and a lot about North Korea, Africa and things like that. But not about Burma. Why not? I mean… we feel like we have been forgotten. I want to fill the gap.
Do you have the feeling that things are slowly changing in Burma?
Yeah… things are going to change anyway. But I do believe, you know, in only one thing. I mean… I don’t have any idea of whether it will be slow or fast. Because, you know, even the Socialist Empire broke down in two or three years. It was the strongest, we thought. But when it fell, it fell. […] And we cannot fortell what will happen next. When certain things are happening, we can just wait and see and prepare for the new day. That’s what I’m aiming for now.
What do you say to the news that the Lady now has access to the internet?
Well, she is closely monitored. I don’t know in what way she intends to use it. At least she can share information with the people and she can listen to public opinions more than before. So it’s a good thing. […] Yes, I feel like it’s a good start for her.
Ok, that’s it from my side. Do you think anything else is really important to say about the press freedom in Burma?
You know, we are talking about human rights, forced relocation, forced labour, child maltrition, prostitiution, poverty and all the things in Burma. But, without freedom of press, and freedom of expression in the country, we cannot do anything else. I mean, it is the roots for all the requirements. So, it should be the first target that the international community should push for. […] Sharing information is essential. It will start from the freedom of press in Burma. So, I think, you know, if we have that, we can go on to any other thing we want. I think it’s the most important thing and everybody should push for that.
Thanks a lot, Joshua.
Next to come: The interview with Sam, another VJ of the DVB and my summary on the great importance of digital technologies for Burmese journalists!!