Five journalists sentenced to jail in Burma

Bangkok, October 17, 2014–Three journalists and two publishers were sentenced on Thursday to two years in prison on anti-state charges in Burma, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists strongly condemns the harsh verdict and calls for their release on appeal.

The Pabedan Township Court in Rangoon ruled that Bi Mon Te Nay reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, editors Win Tin and Aung Thant, and publishers Yin Min Tun and Kyaw Min Khaing violated the Penal Code’s Article 505(b), an anti-state provision that broadly bars defamation of the state, reports said.

The charges stemmed from a July 7 Bi Mon Te Nay front page story about an activist group statement that falsely claimed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders had formed an interim government to replace President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian administration.

Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party overwhelmingly won 1990 elections but was not allowed to take office after the military annulled the result and held on to power. She was held under house arrest for 15 years over a 21-year period under the previous junta.

On July 8, police raided Bi Mon Te Nay’s Rangoon office and seized computers and documents. The weekly independent news journal was suspended after its journalists, editors and publishers were indicted, reports said.

All five were arrested days after the story appeared and were held in pre-trial detention while police conducted an investigation. They were originally charged under the more severe 1950 Emergency Provision Act, which allows for seven-year prison sentences for national security related offenses.

On August 4, a Pabedan district court reduced the charges to the less punitive Article 505(b) and ordered the release of detained Bi Mon Te Nay editor Ye Min Aung due to lack of evidence. The jail terms handed down on Thursday were the maximum allowed under the law. Defense lawyer Kyaw Win said they would appeal to a higher court, according to a Radio Free Asia report.

“How many journalists must be imprisoned before the international community recognizes that Burmese President Thein Sein’s democratic reform program is a complete and utter sham?” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s Southeast Asia representative. “We call for the immediate release of Bi Mon Te Nay’s staff members and all other journalists currently being held behind bars in Burma.”

After a period of liberalization in 2012, during which at least 12 imprisoned journalists were released and pre-publication censorship of newspapers was ended, Thein Sein’s government has more recently resumed the previous junta’s suppressive policies towards the press, CPJ research shows.

On July 10, a court sentenced four journalists and the chief executive officer of the local independent news journal Unity to 10 years of hard labor in prison under the 1923 Official Secrets Act for an exposé they published on a secretive military installation in the country’s central Magwe region. Their sentences were reduced from 10 years to seven by an appeals count on October 2, according to local reports.

On April 7, a Magwe regional court sentenced Democratic Voice of Burma reporter Zaw Pe to one year in prison for “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant” while reporting on a Japanese scholarship fund in August 2012. He was released on July 4 after his sentence was reduced to three months.