With tape covering their mouths that read, "The arrest of journalists is oppression of the media," around 20 activists from Myanmar's Bago region marched on July 15 to protest the recent jailing of five journalists from the now-closed independent weekly news magazine Unity Journal. The march followed another protest on Saturday where around 150 journalists voiced concerns about media freedom outside Myanmar Peace Center where President Thein Sein had a press conference about Myanmar’s art scene.
The outrage was triggered by a Myanmar court decision on July 10, which sentenced the Unity’s chief executive Tint San and magazine reporters and editors Yazar Sow, Sithu Soe, Lu Maw Naing, and Paing Thet Kyaw to 10 years of hard labor in prison. The lawyer for four of the reporters, Robert San Aung, called the decision “unfair” and said he would appeal as soon as he received an official copy of the sentencing.
The Unity’s journalists were arrested in February and charged with revealing state secrets. The articles that prompted the arrest, published in January, alleged the existence of a secret weapons facility consisting of tunnels under more than 3,000 acres of land in the Magway Region of central Myanmar. The reports quoted local villagers who claimed to have seen Chinese technicians at the facility, and also said that they were producing chemical weapons. The magazine included denials from government officials, according to New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.
"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. The International Federation for Journalists asked donor countries to put diplomatic pressure on Burma.
On July 8, two days before the sentencing of the Unity journalists, the Myanmar Special Branch Police arrested and interrogated three editors of Bi Mon Te Nay Journal. The journal published an article claiming that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had been appointed to an interim government. According to a legal expert, the editors could face seven to 10 years in prison.
Myanmar Journalists Association expressed frustration, claiming that the arrests conflict with the Media Law enacted in March. Phoe Thaut Kyar, a patron with the association, said complainants must consult with the press council before filing charges against a journalist or publication.
July 7 Myanmar’s President Thein Sein announced that Myanmar had attained “one of the highest levels of press freedom in Southeast Asia.” He added, however, that legal actions would be taken against media that threatens national security instead of helping it even under the recent media laws.
Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, which came to power in 2011, has been considered largely progressive because of political reforms, including relaxing media laws and censorship. But the recent media crackdown raises doubts about the government’s understanding of free press and its role in transformation to democracy.