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Burma listed in Top 10 for jailing journalists

More than 50 journalists and their supporters were charged in July for protesting illegally after they attempted to take their calls for media freedom directly to Burmese President Thein Sein. (Photo: DVB)

By Colin Hinshelwood
December 20, 2014

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has identified 220 journalists imprisoned around the world in 2014, a slight increase from the year before.

The Burmese government is currently ranked as the eighth most repressive regime for jailing reporters; with ten media workers listed behind bars, it is surpassed only by China, Iran, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Vietnam, Egypt and Syria.

“The fact that Burma is among the ten worst global jailers of journalists underscores the abrupt reversal of President Thein Sein’s earlier press freedom promises. Reporters in Burma now face the same level of threat they did under the previous military junta,” said Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for CPJ, speaking to DVB on Friday.

“With ten journalists now languishing behind bars, proponents of the country’s supposed democratic progress should wake up and take notice of the authoritarian reality that still governs the country. The use of anti-state charges to jail journalists has restored the culture of fear and self-censorship that was pervasive under the previous ruling junta.

“If Western governments based their decisions to lift or suspend sanctions on previous progress on press freedom, they should now consider reimposing those punitive measures in response to the jailing of journalists,” he added.

According to the report by the international journalists’ watchdog, on the date of the CPJ census, at least 10 journalists were imprisoned in Burma, officially known as Myanmar, all on anti-state charges.

“In July, five staff members of the Unity weekly news journal were sentenced to 10 years in prison each under the 1923 Official Secrets Act. Rather than reforming draconian and outdated security laws, President Thein Sein’s government is using the laws to imprison journalists,” the report by CPJ news editor Shazdeh Omari said.

The five were found guilty of exposing state secrets after a January report in Unity alleged the existence of a secret chemical weapons factory in Magwe Division, central Burma.

On 2 October, the regional court reduced the sentences of the five Unity personnel to seven years following an appeal.

In July, more than 50 journalists and their supporters were charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act for participating in an unauthorised demonstration where they taped their mouths and held a vigil outside the government-backed Myanmar Peace Centre in Rangoon.

In October, five staff members of the now defunct Bi-Mon Te Nay weekly news journal were found guilty of sedition charges and sentenced to two years each.

The five – two editors, one reporter and two publishers – were sentenced under Article 505(b) of the penal code for “defamation of the state”after the journal had published a report in July repeating an activist group’s claims that Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had teamed up with several ethnic politicians to form an interim government.

The conviction of the ten Unity and Bi-Mon Te Nay journalists prompted a domestic and international outcry, with warnings that the country could be backsliding on promises of press freedom.

While major media reforms, such as the disbandment of Burma’s notorious pre-publication censorship board in August 2012, caused a wave of early optimism, disputes over new regulations and an apparent targeting of reporters began to cast doubt on Naypyidaw’s commitment to establishing a free media.

According to the CPJ report, 44 journalists languish behind bars in China, a jump from 32 the previous year. Almost half of those jailed are either Tibetan or Uighur.

The increased imprisonment of journalists in China “reflects the pressure that President Xi Jinping has exerted on media, lawyers, dissidents and academics to toe the government line,” said CPJ. “In addition to jailing journalists, Beijing has issued restrictive new rules about what can be covered and denied visas to international journalists.”

Iran is second worst offender, according to CPJ, although its record continues to improve. Thirty media workers are currently recorded in Iranian prisons, down from 35 in 2013, and a record high of 45 in 2012.

According to international watchdog Reporters Without Borders, 66 journalists were killed around the world in 2014, 15 of who were in Syria. One slain reporter was recorded in Burma – Par Gyi, who was killed by the Burmese army in September under opaque circumstances.

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