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Demand the release of those jailed for shining a light in dark corners

Demand the release of those jailed for shining a light in dark corners

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REUTERS

Australian journalist and publisher Ross Dunkley is escorted by police to hear charges at the Kamaryut township court in central Yangon in March 2011.

Picture the unthinkable.

You arrive home directly from the airport and a group of uniformed officers barge into your home, put you in handcuffs and take you away. You are interrogated for hours on end and thrown into a cell. There, you wait for hours, days or even weeks before you are charged or brought in front of a court.

You are an irritant. A nuisance. You are a threat. Someone wants you gone and out of the way.

Worldwide more than 500 publishers and journalists were arrested and jailed in the past year and they number several thousand over the past decade. An undetermined number of them remain in prison today, serving sentences as long as 20 years. They include journalists and newspaper executives held in jail in Myanmar.

Locking up journalists instills fear and sends a clear message: Don’t meddle with affairs that upset figures of authority, people of power who like to act with impunity. Government corruption, for example, or criminal activity linked to influential personalities, or the absence of political pluralism and human rights.

It wasn’t such a different scenario for me a little more than a year ago when I was arrested and held in Insein prison in Myanmar. It was just before a new democratic government came into being, still at a time when military figures had the ‘right’ to act without answerability, or to be accountable to a system other than the one that suited them at the time.

I was accused of assaulting a woman, of keeping her captive in my home for three days, of bashing her head up against a wall. Later I was charged with administering a substance to this woman.

There were no witnesses or evidence, but I was charged with five serious criminal charges and an immigration offence and my future took a sudden turn for the worse. I was looking down the barrel of 10 years in jail or more.

Local newspapers favoured by a minister took the opportunity to slander me, dragging my name through the mud and to blatantly accuse me of being guilty before a case went before the courts. Guilty until proven innocent was the order of the day, it appeared to me.

It was an emotional time for my family, my friends and my work-mates. It took 47 days before my barristers were able to have me released on bail from prison. Over the ensuing six months I went to court more than 20 times to fight for my freedom and innocence.

It is my earnest opinion the judge was never free to act independently, without fear or favour. Inevitably he waited for a call from above before taking action. Yet, I have no doubt he wanted to acquit me. The police didn’t want to proceed. The prosecuting lawyer didn’t believe in the case. The woman tried to drop all charges but was blocked from doing so.

Then I was not free to express my views in my own paper, and my colleagues were forced to self-censor or they suffered the red pen of the censor.

I was fortunate that hundreds of my colleagues, in Myanmar and in other countries in the region and around the world, kept my case in the headlines. I wouldn’t go away.

I was a prominent case, the only foreign publisher in the country, but all over the world many of my fellow journalist colleagues are in prison, and are paying the price of their excessive curiosity or commitment to press freedom. Many are faceless and unknown other than to their families and colleagues.

Among them is a former founder and partner of the Myanmar Times. In April 2005 he was sentenced to prison for 14 years, yet, inexplicably, did nothing to deserve being jailed.

Quite the contrary. He was a champion of Myanmar, returning from overseas because he wanted to make a contribution to his homeland and helping to produce a newspaper that set new standards for coverage, presentation and helped to raise the country’s international profile.

At a time when Myanmar needed to project a sophisticated international voice, he was there with me and a few others as we did our job. Yet he is not yet free, and we wonder why?

Democracy gives us the right to express our opinion by speaking out against injustice, including when it affects those working in the media. They deserve to be free.

Let us strive to ensure that the jailing of journalists for political reasons is ended.

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