democracy radio key source on Myanmar protests

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OSLO, Oct 1 (Reuters) Using secret material smuggled out of Myanmar, the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma's radio and TV stations are a key source of information for those inside and outside the country on the government's crackdown on protesters.

As demonstrators clash with troops in a nation with no independent media, exiled journalists and workers broadcasting from a sleek office in the Norwegian capital hope their work will help end military rule in their homeland.

Undercover local journalists secretly film and record events, risking arrest and torture to send footage and facts to the station.

Material is smuggled out by airline passengers or diplomats, or sent by e-mail.

As protests grew last week, the station found itself providing film to the world's broadcasters largely unable to get their own material from inside Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

''Our station is a key factor in making a change,'' Khin Maung Win, a 42-year-old veteran of 1988 protests which ended in bloodshed with a military crackdown, told Reuters.

''In 1988, Burma was a completely closed country. There was no media coverage. Now everyone is watching.'' With about a dozen from its staff of 100 in Oslo, the newsroom is alive with discussion about events half a world away. ''Never report rumours'' says a sign on the wall alongside a painting of democracy icon and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

The Democratic Voice of Burma broadcasts by shortwave radio. It also beams satellite television for several hours a day.

Funded by the governments of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, the United States and the Netherlands, the broadcaster has increased its output and most staff have almost doubled their hours since protests led by Buddhist monks began earlier this month.

TUNING IN Myanmar's government last week blocked Internet access but people in Myanmar continued to talk to the station by mobile phone, Win said.

Before the protests, the station estimated its radio programmes reached about 13 million of Myanmar's 56 million people and its satellite television about half of the estimated 10 million viewers in the country.

''Nowadays, we think everyone is tuning in,'' he said. ''People are watching and listening publicly. People are proud when their voices are heard on the air -- they would never have that chance with state media.'' Mobile and satellite phone calls are its main expense, Win said, adding that last week alone the station spent its usual annual total of nearly 0,000 on communications. Governments that support the radio have pledged more funds.

Working for the station is a crime in Myanmar, and the staff worry about the safety of their workers and family members. Some staff in Oslo avoid communication with families back home for fear of endangering them.

The broadcaster also sees a role for itself in a free Myanmar.

''In the past we were effectively propaganda for the pro-democracy movement,'' Win said. ''Now, we try to be objective so we can become the independent media of a free Burma.'' There is cause for optimism, Win says. The station reported that some army units refused to fire on protesters or monks -- signs of a potential split in the military, he said.

He said a transition would have to be gradual and he hoped a UN envoy visiting the country would be able to persuade the military rulers to allow a step-by-step transfer of power.

A sudden collapse of central rule could be disastrous, Win said.

''There are so many ethnic groups in the country,'' he said. ''There are many people with weapons but no education. It could become another Yugoslavia... or another Iraq.'' Reuters SYU DB0830

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