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Ten Years Hard Labour For Exposing Burma’s Chemical Weapons Factory

July 12, 2014

International press freedom and human rights organisations reacted sharply to the 10-year prison sentences imposed on the CEO and four journalists of Burma’s Unity Weekly newspaper after they were convicted, Thursday, under the country’s Official Secrets Act for a story on a chemical weapons factory linked to top generals of the military-backed government. It was published in January.

The 10-year terms for CEO Tint San and reporters Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw (Aung Thura) and Sithu Soe came with hard labour, prompting Paris-based Reporters without Borders (RWB/RSF) to remark that after “considerable progress since 2012, the harsh sentences confirmed that Burma has done a U-turn on freedom of information.”

“This decision by the Magway court is a grave setback for press freedom,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific Desk. “Progress had been made but this case marks a return to a dark time when journalists and bloggers who did their job were jailed on national security charges or for allegedly trying to overthrow the government.”

Meanwhile, the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) urged the international community to make known its disapproval of the Burmese government’s censorship by bringing to bear “diplomatic pressure” and reconsidering “economic support.”

“This conviction should shatter any illusions that President Thein Sein’s government grasps the role of a free press in a democracy. The international community should act quickly to not only get this decision reversed, but to impress upon the government that its anti-media stance will jeopardize future economic assistance,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Programme coordinator.

Commenting on the sentence, Rupert Abbott, deputy director, Asia Pacific, of Amnesty International said, “Amnesty International considers all five men to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.”

The Unity Weekly story implicating the military and the secrecy surrounding its operations, as well as the harsh sentence handed down by the court, led human rights organisations to upbraid at the international community for embracing Naypyidaw’s assurances that the country was on the path of democratic reform. The international community began softening its stance on Burma following general elections of November 2011 and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi weeks later. Many journalists held in custody were released in 2012.

“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,” said Abbott in the Amnesty statement.

Similarly, CPJ said, “CPJ has cautioned against premature praise for Burma’s pledge for media-related reforms after the country emerged from decades of international isolation in 2011.”

Thursday’s incursion into media freedom comes days after Burma detained for interrogation three editors – Ko Ye Min Aung, Ko Win Tin and Ko Naing Sai Aung – working for the daily Bi Mon Te Nay over a story that appeared on the publication’s front page that Suu Kyi had become part of an interim government. The government said the editors would be prosecuted.

RSF said that six more editors were interrogated between June 20 and 23 about their newspapers’ income, circulation and other details.

“Amid continuing political, ethnic and religious tension, the actions of the Burmese authorities have betrayed a certain desperation. By adopting an authoritarian and repressive attitude with the media, the government is neither protecting national security nor solving problems related to news coverage,” said Ismail.

Dispatches from AFP concerning freedom of information, censorship and news coverage in regions where independent media is under threat.