The Democratic Voice of Burma is based in Norway’s capital Oslo. It has been broadcasting radio to Burma since 1992, a year after the country’s military junta refused to allow prominent pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi to travel to Oslo to receive her Nobel Peace Prize. She is currently under house arrest, with no access to the outside world.
Last year the station decided to expand into satellite television. Since it is based outside Burma, it can avoid censorship by the authorities in a country ranked fifth worst for media freedom by Reporters Without Borders (after North Korea, Eritrea, Turkmenistan and Iran).
“People don’t get real information about what is happening inside their country,” Democratic Voice of Burma’s director Aye Chan Naing told IPS. “There is no freedom of expression, and heavy media censorship. The government completely controls the information flow, and allows no criticism. We plan to be an alternative source.”
Eleven exiled Burmese in the Oslo headquarters form the editorial team in an operation that includes a total of about 50 stringers and other contributors around the world.
The station promotes human rights and democracy, and has programming on health issues, education, grassroots empowerment, parenting skills and microcredit schemes.
Some topics covered include Burma’s use of forced labour, the plight of Burmese migrant workers, and the military government’s tactic of changing laws to suit political circumstances.
“Many people in Burma don’t know what human rights and democracy are, and so we try to educate them about this,” says Naing.
Democratic Voice of Burma is the only independent media outlet that broadcasts to the country in Burmese language.
“We believe the images are a lot more powerful than just hearing voices on the radio,” says the director.
While the radio station in theory reaches about 30 million of Burma’s 50 million citizens, satellite TV too can potentially reach a large slice of the population, Naing says. “There are lots of satellite dishes inside Burma, so we think we can reach 10 million people.”
Naing, originally educated as a dentist, joined Burmese student protests in 1988 supporting Aung San Suu Kyi’s pro-democracy opposition party. In 1990 the party won the country’s first multi-party election in 30 years.
Aung San Suu Kyi and the opposition were never allowed to govern. Instead the military junta dissolved its own puppet government and took control of the state. Naing joined the information wing of the opposition but eventually had to leave the country.
The military junta is accused of a long litany of human rights abuses, such as the widespread use of forced labour, including from children, and the forcible relocation of civilians.
According to Human Rights Watch there are currently more than 1,100 political prisoners in Burma. The junta allows virtually no opposition political activity, and persecutes democracy and human rights activists.
Undercover journalists based in Burma take a host of security measures to secretly film video or record radio pieces for the station, but now even the military junta is making use of Democratic Voice of Burma, Naing says.
“In the beginning it was risky to listen to the radio station and the government would jam it, but not any more. Gradually even the civil servants started listening to us, as it is the only way to get reliable information. Their own media will for instance never show Burmese historians in exile talking about the history of Burma in a critical way.”
This use of the broadcasts is good “because nowadays even people as high up in the rank as lieutenant-colonels are starting to openly criticise the government,” says Naing.
The television station broadcasts two hours a week. Eventually it hopes to expand to a daily show.
“We are planning to expand, but not for the time being,” Naing says. “It is still early days, but the reaction inside Burma has been tremendous. It is the first time people have seen independent television news in Burmese. Some have not even seen Aung San Suu Kyi or other opposition leaders as the state media never show them.” Interpress Service