Myanmar Hands Journalists Ten Years Hard Labor Over Chemical Weapons Report

A court in Myanmar on Thursday sentenced five reporters to 10 years of hard labor in prison for compromising national security after they published articles about an alleged chemical weapons factory, drawing censure from rights groups who accused the government of paying lip service to democratic reform.

The Pakokku District Court in central Myanmar’s Magway region handed the harsh terms to chief executive Tint San and journalists Paing Htet Kyaw, Yazar Oo, Sithu Sore and Lu Maw Naing—all from the Unity Weekly News—under the 1923 State Secrets Act.

The five men were charged under the holdover law, enacted when the country was a British colony known as Burma, accusing them of publishing state secrets and trespassing in a prohibited area while gathering information for their story.

The Unity had published an article in late January alleging that the military had confiscated more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of farmland to build a chemical weapons factory in Magway’s Pauk town under the instruction of former junta strongman Than Shwe.

The article included testimony from area residents and photos of the alleged facility. A subsequent article published by Unity, which has since gone out of business, included a government denial of the allegations that the factory could produce chemical weapons.

Myanmar has signed, but has yet to ratify, the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the production and use of chemical weapons.

Rights groups on Thursday called for the immediate release of the five men and said that their sentencing shows that Myanmar’s government is backtracking on reforms it has made, including allowing increased media freedom.

London-based Amnesty International said in a statement that the verdict has made for “a very dark day” for freedom of expression in the country.

“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.

“Amnesty International considers all five men to be prisoners of conscience and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.”

The rights group said that the sentences also “expose the government’s promises to improve the human rights situation in the country as hollow ones” and contributed to a wider crackdown on the media since the beginning of the year, “despite government assurances that such practices would end.”

“The authorities are continuing to rely on draconian laws to silence dissenting views or fair reporting, just like the previous military government did,” Abbott said.

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders called the sentences a “grave setback for press freedom” in Myanmar, adding that they confirm the country “has done a U-turn on freedom of information.”

“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,” Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia-Pacific desk, said in the statement.

Myanmar is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.

‘Insult to journalists’

Lu Maw Naing’s wife, Lwin Lwin Myint, called the sentences “an insult to journalists” and said the group would appeal at the regional level court.

“I feel that it is an unfair punishment and it is an insult to journalists because the judge listened to the testimonies of all 29 complainant witnesses and seven witnesses for the accused, all of which clearly showed that [the defendants] did nothing wrong,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service after the trial.

The five reporters, aged between 22 and 52, were arrested in February, just days after the article was released, and have been in detention since.

Lwin Lwin Myint said her husband was “very surprised” by the severity of the sentence.

“[They feel like] they were bullied … [My husband] also said that they still don’t believe in media freedom in Myanmar,” she said.

“I am going to appeal for the four journalists as well as my husband at the regional court.”

She added that Paing Htet Kyaw’s health in prison had been affected by the recent heat.

Thursday’s sentence is one of the harshest verdicts leveled at journalists since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 and rolled back tough restrictions on the media imposed by the military regime, which did not tolerate dissent.

But rights groups have highlighted mounting concerns over press freedoms in recent months, following several cases of criminal prosecutions against the media.

Abolish ‘unfair’ laws

Chairman of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association Ko Ko called the sentencing “sad news” and urged the government to engage the country’s media instead of moving to persecute it.

“As often happens during a transition period, there may have been misunderstandings between [the media and the government] and there may have been some mistakes on our side, but it would be better to solve issues by discussing them and assisting one another,” he said.

He called the sentences “a warning” by the government to the media, despite recently passed laws enshrining media freedom.

“When [the media laws] are implemented, journalists will have to follow press rules and ethics and the authorities will have to make decisions according to it,” he said of the recently passed legislation, which does not include prison terms for members of the media found to have breached the law in their work.

“If both sides follow the rules of the media law, there will be fewer problems.”

Ko Ko said that a government crackdown on the media since the beginning of the year has created an environment that feels “unsafe” for journalists.

“Journalists must study the current laws carefully, such as what laws specifically apply to members of the media and what actions might lead us to face legal measures,” he said.

“We have called on parliament to abolish several unfair media laws. But I think we must also hold talks or forums to discuss educating people about the media laws that all journalists should know.”

Reported by Myo Zaw Ko and Thin Thiri for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.