Burma takes another step toward repressing its media

New York, July 10, 2014–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.

The five–reporters and editors Yazar Soe, Sithu Soe, Lu Maw Naing, and Paing Thet Kyaw, and chief executive Tint San–worked for the independent Yangon-based Unity weekly news journal, according to news reports. They were arrested in February and convicted 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.

Formal hearings in the case began on March 17, according to reports. The group’s lawyer said he would appeal the verdict.

“CPJ is alarmed that journalists were tried under a 100-year-old spying statute and slammed with an outrageously harsh sentence,” said CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz. “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.”

The conviction stemmed from a January 25 story in the Unity that alleged the Burmese military was operating a secret weapons facility, which consisted of underground tunnels on more than 3,000 acres of land in Magwe Division. Local villagers cited in the report said Chinese technicians were frequently seen at the facility and that its workers told reporters they were producing chemical weapons. The magazine published denials from government officials about the claims.

Unity stopped appearing soon after the article was published.

Burma has often used repressive legislation to silence critical voices. Rights groups including CPJ have often expressed concern at the country’s moves away from press freedom, including its use of state security charges to censor journalists. 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.