Bob Dietz, the Asia Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, spoke in an assured tone. His silver-lined mustache framed a fatherly voice that conveyed personal investment in his work. He said he does not advocate for big causes, and is not invested in broader issues. He is dedicated to one task, “going to bat for individuals,” narrowing his scope to journalists whose professional duties have put them at risk. “Otherwise you lose focus,” said Dietz. That focus, in this instance, is on Burma.
It’s not a pretty picture.
In an October 10th article posted on CPJ’s website, Joel Simon, the executive director, denounced “the brutal repression of the Burmese junta.” The article expressed specific concern over the continued detention of three journalists.
Listed by Dietz as the “second most censored society,” following North Korea, the Burmese government does not willingly open itself to the outside world, even in times of relative peace. During times of conflict information becomes even more sporadic and incomplete. The current incident is no exception.
During the initial phase of the conflict reports, photos, and voices emerged in the form of text messages, images captured by cell phone cameras, calls from inside the country, and web postings. Citizen journalism was filling the gaps left by major media coverage. All that was before the military junta pulled the plug. Now information from inside is increasingly scarce.
The difficulty of placing journalists in Burma is evident in the datelines of major U.S. newspapers. The majority read “Bangkok,” an admission that they do not have a reporter inside. Dietz said the information that we do receive “comes from border jumpers, most often the Thai border.”
“It’s gutsy, and you’re a hero if you get out,” he said, but he recognized that the chance for glory comes at great personal risk. The fate of Kenji Nagai, the Japanese photographer killed in the government crackdown, is sufficient proof.
Though the recent violence has the international community rapt, Dietz is realistic about the world’s attention span. “Burma isn’t all that damned important,” he said, speaking from the perspective of the international community. He believes it will most likely fade from the headlines before the conflict is resolved, and obstacles in the journalists’ path will only accelerate the process. Reporters who cannot get at the stories will not write the stories. The public will forget to remember and the atrocities will continue.
Regardless of the amount of attention Burma receives, journalists working inside its borders have a steady ally in Dietz. His focus will remain sharp, no matter how far the public eye strays.