Burma gives journalists harsh prison-term as reform reversed
By Zin Linn
July 13, 2014
Burma’s media realm has been shocked as Pakokku district court in Magwe Division on Thursday (July 10) sentenced the chief executive officer of a weekly news journal and four of its reporters to 10 years in prison with hard labor for publishing a report that covered a huge mysterious government complex – established in Pauk Township, Magwe Division in Burma - was designed to produce chemical weapons.
The five journalists - Yazar Soe, Sithu Soe, Lu Maw Naing, and Paing Thet Kyaw, and chief executive officer Tint San – working at the Unity weekly news journal were sentenced ten-year jail term by Judge U Maung Maung Htay of Pakokku District Court, according to the domestic media reports.
They were arrested in February and put on trial under Burma's 1923 State Secrets Act, which forbids anyone from entering a prohibited place for any reason “prejudicial to the safety or interests of the state,” reports said.
Such an unbelievable imprisonment for journalists is a questioning for the government of President U Thein Sein. While the magistrate takes action in line with the official power which grants to him, it seems to be a harsh warning for Burma’s journalists and press freedom. Although President U Thein Sein has guaranteed the media freedom frequently, the local law enforcement officers look like overlooked reform process for democracy.
However, due to early this month religious riots in Mandalay President U Thein Sein blamed the media without any concrete facts.
“Severe action will be taken against those who intentionally spread hate speech and caused the riots, regardless of their race or religion,” he said in a radio address on Monday morning.
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) says in its 10-July press alert: “Donor countries should bring diplomatic pressure on Burma's government and reconsider their economic support for the country following Thursday's sentencing of four journalists of a magazine and the publication's chief executive to 10 years of hard labor in prison, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.”
Southeast Asian Press Alliance also condemns Burma authorities concerning the latest repression on the press in its Friday statement. It says, “SEAPA is extremely disturbed by the verdict and the heavy sentencing of the journalists. The charges and the outcome are disproportionate to the problem at hand. We condemn the criminalization of media work, and in this case, the cruel punishment of hard labour. No journalist should have to face this kind of action for their work, and in the case of the Unity Journal, the issue covered clearly had immense public interest.”
According to the workers of the mysterious plant, it is a biggest chemical weapon factory in Burma where the Unity Journal’s reporters sneaked in the factory by the help of the employees. The reporters tried to uncover the government expenses of immeasurable public fund in order to build massive weapon plants whereas Western democracies give pressure to cut Burma’s spending on defense budget.
It will cause lessening confidence on the democratic reform by the international community. As the defense expenditure has been still amplifying under U Thein Sein government, it seems refueling the civil war against the ethnic rebels that taking place for more than sixty years.
Looking back into times of yore, President Thein Sein delivered an address on 01 March at the third regular session of first Union Parliament in commemoration of the first anniversary of the government’s inauguration, as said by the state media on March 2, 2012.
In his speech, the president gave credit not only the administration and political parties, but also all the stakeholders including civil societies and the fourth estate media. It was the first time that Burma’s president contemplated the fourth estate media as an important stakeholder in the country.
One of the main challenges of Burma is reconciliation between the ethnic armed groups and the government. Everyone has suffered from the various protracted conflicts in the country. Journalists can serve as a bridge between the ethnic armed groups, the government and civilian population to establish lasting peace in the country. The role of the ‘Media’ or the ‘Press’ is very important in time of rebuilding the country.
The public has a right to be informed on a subject of general interest like the story covered by the Unity Journal. Journalists who are just doing their job must be protected, and if anyone has to be prosecuted, it should be the newspaper. Under no circumstances should journalists be imprisoned because of the content of their articles.
In this contemporary world, people used to emphasize the importance of the free flow of information. They also call attention to freedom of expression, speech, writing, publishing and distribution of news among journalists, citizens of international community and peoples of various categories living on this earth.
At some points in recent years in Burma, the dissolution of press censorship, permitting private newspapers and creation of an Interim Press Council are signs of progress concerning freedom of the press. Particularly, it is remarkable that the President acknowledges the major role of the media as the fourth estate, in his speeches.
However, contrary to the President’s attitude, it is disappointing that five journalists of the Unity journal were sentenced ten-year jail term by the judge of Pakokku District Court. It shows that the Magway Divisional Government does not respect the press freedom which President U Thein Sein acknowledges as a necessity.
It is a bad sign for the free press related to the imprisonment of 5 reporters from the Unity Weekly Journal. The journal published a story concerning secret chemical weapon factory on 25 January. Police detained them in Pauk on 31 January on a charge of violating the State Secret Act, which allows a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison.
Therefore, journalists in Burma have to keep on their jobs facing threats and hindrances in the face of comprehensive reform process including media freedom.
Most of Burma’s media-related groups and journalists have opposed the repressive laws made by the government including procedures of writing additional draft laws for the media, with regulations for broadcasting, film, and the use of libraries as the new laws could add additional controls on the media.
While the country is at an intersection of political reform, the media workers in the country are looking forward to have more pragmatic backing from the international media groups.
International media watchdog groups have been urging the Burmese authorities repeatedly to dump the unethical laws governing freedom of expression. The Burmese government still needs to dump the 1962 Printers and Publishers Registration Law, the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, article 505-B of the criminal code, the 1996 Television and Video Act, the 1996 Computer Science Development Act, the 1923 Officials Secrets Act and the 1933 Burma Wireless Telegraphy Act which are still threatening the press freedom in Burma.