Five journalists from Burma’s Unity Journal have been sentenced to 10 years in prison for ‘disclosing state secrets,’ – Amnesty International warned that it was a “dark day for freedom of expression” in Burma.
The five Unity Journal journalists were arrested between the 31st of January and the 1st of February following their involvement in an investigative report on an alleged chemical weapons factory in the country’s Magwe region. The journalists were charged with violating Burma’s Official Secrets Act.
A court in the town of Pakokku handed down the 10-year sentence to four reporters and the chief-executive-officer of the Unity Journal on July 10. The journalists are named as Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Tint San.
Amnesty International warned that the arrests and imprisonment was a “crackdown” on Burma’s bourgeoning press.
“This is a very dark day for freedom of expression in Myanmar. These five media workers have done nothing but cover a story that is in the public interest,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Deputy Asia-Pacific Director in a statement. “Amnesty International considers all five men to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.”
The jailing of the five journalists comes despite a promise made by Burma’s, President U Thein Sein, on July 15, 2013, that the country would have no more prisoners of conscience. Amnesty International noted that arrests and the imprisonment of peaceful activists and human rights defenders still continues.
“I guarantee to you that by the end of this year, there will be no prisoners of conscience in Myanmar. We are aiming for nothing less than a transition from half a century of military rule and authoritarianism to democracy,” the president, U Thein Sein said, whilst on a trip to London to meet with the British Prime Minister David Cameron.
Following the arrests Burmese journalists across the country protested. The Burma News international (BNI) represents many of the country’s ethnic media outlets and in a media statement denounced the government’s heavy handed punishment of the Unity Journal reporters.
“Burma News International (BNI) strongly condemn [Burma government] for sentencing Unity Journal’s chief-executive-officer, U Tint San and four other journalist to ten year imprisonment with hard labor on charges of revealing national secrets – under the old draconian law put in place in 1923. There are incidents where media freedom has been threatened and confronted by government authorities including cases of Ma Khaing of Daily Eleven reporter and Ko Aung Pe, Mizzima video journalist who were prosecuted while they were gathering information from sources. Angus Watson, a DVB foreign reporter was also kicked out from the country.”
BNI urged the Burma government to commit to media freedom by revoking the sentence handed down to Unity’s reporters.
“Although the government has said it is committed to democracy, BNI’s view is that the authorities handing Unity Journal’s reporters heavy sentences – and the harassment of the media is a threat to media freedom.”
Amnesty International’s, Mr. Abbott, condemned the Burma government for its failed promise. “Today’s sentences expose the government’s promises to improve the human rights situation in the country as hollow ones. They reflect a wider crackdown on free media since the beginning of the year, despite government assurances that such practices would end,” he said.
Mr. Abbott compared the current government to the brutal military regimes of the recent past. “The authorities are continuing to rely on draconian laws to silence dissenting views or fair reporting, just like the previous military government did. The authorities must scrap or amend all legislation that unlawfully restricts the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly.”
While Burma has undergone some reforms – including the release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – many of the country’s most oppressive laws remain in place, including the Peaceful Processions Law and Section 505 (b) of the Penal Code, which require all protest and public gatherings to be signed off by the authorities before they can go ahead. Despite effort to convince the international community that Burma is embracing democratic principles, President U Thin Sein’s military-backed government has continued to harass and arrest journalists, land rights campaigners and activists.
On July 8 this year, three editors from the Bi Mon Te Nay journal were reportedly arrested after the journal published an article the day before claiming that opposition leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had been appointed as part of a new interim government.
Sometimes facing multiple official rebuttals, protests go ahead ‘illegally’ – protestors caught doing so can face long prison sentences and hefty fines.
In one recent example eight activists in Chin State were arrested under the Peaceful Procession Law for their role in organizing a protest calling for women’s rights. They had organized the protest after a Burma Army soldier allegedly violently abused and tried to rape a woman near Razua.
In early February 2014, the International Federation of Journalists issued a strongly worded statement criticizing the arrest the Unity Journal’s reporters.
“The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) “condemns the arrest and continuing detainment of five Burmese journalists following the publication of a story alleging a Burmese military facility was producing chemical weapons.”
The IFJ said in February that the government arrested five journalists from the Rangoon based newspaper, Unity Weekly News, and charged them with breaching the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act.
The International Federation of Journalists February statement included quotes from its “affiliate, the Myanmar Journalist Association (MJA), “that the arrests are a clear example of how an 80-year-old law was still being used to silence journalists in the new media landscape.”
The MJA’s joint secretary said that the arrest of the journalists “threaten journalists in our media industry and may seriously affect freedom of expression.”
Burma’s four press associations joined forces to issue a joint media statement stating that the government’s heavy-handed actions compared to those of the country’s previous military regime. The statement from the Myanmar Journalist Union, Myanmar Journalist Network, Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association and Pen Myanmar said.
The International Federation of Journalists said that the governments actions are a throwback to the, “development for the fourth estate in Myanmar – it seems murky tactics of intimidation have replaced the censorship board.”