Amid rising repression, Burmese journalist given jail term

Bangkok, April 7, 2014–A Burmese journalist was sentenced to one year in prison today on charges of “trespassing” and “disturbing an on-duty civil servant” while reporting a news story, according to local reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for the verdict to be overturned on appeal. 

A court in the country’s central Magwe region convicted Zaw Pe, a reporter with the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), of violating criminal codes in August 2012 while reporting on scholarships awarded to Burmese students by a Japanese foundation, according to news reports. A Magwe Township Education Department official who was unnamed in news reports filed the charges against Zaw Pe and the father of a student who had made inquiries about the educational grants.

When the charges were first filed, police interrogated Zaw Pe, who is also known as Thura Thet Tin, for more than eight hours and confiscated his video camera, memory card, and press badge, according to a DVB report at the time. He was released while the criminal charges were pending, according to reports.

Thein Tun, Zaw Pe’s lawyer, said he would simultaneously serve one-year terms for each charge, according to the reports. Zaw Pe will appeal the verdict, according to news reports citing his lawyer.

Burmese officials have increasingly used the threat of criminal trespassing charges to prevent probing reports into their activities, DVB editors told CPJ during a research mission in 2013.  Previously run from outside the country but now with a bureau inside Burma, DVB was frequently targeted for harassment by the previous military government for its critical reports.   

“Today’s conviction of journalist Zaw Pe is the latest indication that Burma’s once-promising democratic reform program is rapidly being reversed,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative. “With at least five journalists now in jail, President Thein Sein’s vows to uphold press freedom ring increasingly hollow. We call for the immediate release of all reporters being held in Burma.”

Zaw Pe’s conviction comes amid a widening clampdown on the press. In December, Burmese journalist Ma Khine was sentenced to three months in prison on charges of defamation, trespassing, and allegedly using abusive language while interviewing a lawyer about a legal dispute in eastern Kayah State.  She was the first Burmese reporter to be imprisoned since Thein Sein released 14 jailed journalists in a 2012 presidential pardon of political prisoners.

In February, four journalists with the local Unity weekly news journal were detained on charges under the Official Secrets Act for their reporting on an alleged secret military chemical weapons production facility in the Magwe region, according to reports. They are all being held in pre-trial detention. Each faces up to 14 years in prison if convicted, the reports said.