Five Journalists Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison; 50 Others Face Charges for a Peaceful Protest

by PEN American Center    /  August 28, 2014  / No comments

Myanmar protestors

Members of the Myanmar media protest against the jailing of journalists in April 2014. Photo: via advocacy.globalvoicesonline.org.

Five journalists with the Unity weekly journal, arrested in January and February 2014, were each sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor on July 10, 2014, over a report about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory carried by the publication in January. Fifty other journalists who staged a peaceful protest against the sentences on July 12 now face charges. PEN is calling for the five to be released immediately and unconditionally and for any charges against the others related to the peaceful protest to be dropped.

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Background Information

On July 10, 2014 a court in Pakkoku, Magway Region, sentenced U Tin San, the chief executive officer of the weekly Unity journal, and journalists U Ya Zar Oo, U Paing Thet Kyaw, U Sithu Soe, and U Lu Maw Naing to ten years in jail with hard labor. They had been arrested on January 31 and February 1, 2014, after Unity published an article on January 25 about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in Pauk Township, Pakokku District known as Defense Product Factory No. 24. According to state media, the five were charged with “disclosing State secrets, trespassing on the restricted area of the factory, taking photographs and the act of abetting” under Article 3(1) A/9 of Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act. Their trial began on February 12 2014, and they were convicted on June 30 2014 for breaching the 1923 Official Secrets Act, trespassing in a restricted area, and taking photos of a Defense Ministry facility without permission. On June 26, 2014, the publication suspended operations due to financial problems. All five are reportedly planning to lodge an appeal against their conviction and sentence.

On July 12, 2014, 50 reporters, some with tape over their mouths, held a sit-down protest outside the Myanmar Peace Center in Yangon while President U Thein Sein was inside attending a cultural event. Police have opened cases against those involved in the sit-down protest under Section 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Procession Act. Convictions under Section 18 carry a maximum penalty of one year’s imprisonment and a fine of K30,000 (about US$31).

The five are currently detained at the Pakokku prison. However, there are concerns they may be transferred to remote prisons, far away from their family members. The transfer of prisoners of conscience to remote prisons was a hallmark of the previous military government. Conditions of detention in Myanmar are poor, and all are at risk of torture or other ill-treatment and a lack of access to adequate medical treatment.

PEN’s campaigning for freedom of expression in Myanmar

Myanmar has a been a key country for PEN’s free expression campaigning for over 20 years, when many of the leading figures and founding members of PEN Myanmar such as such as Zarganar, Ma Thida and Nay Phone Latt were first imprisoned. In July 2013, a PEN International Publishers Circle delegation went to Myanmar, and met with 20 writers who became the founding member of the PEN Center. In September 2013, at the 79th International Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland, PEN Myanmar was formally launched, after a half century of repressive military rule in the country. Blogger Nay Phone Latt’s speech to the Assembly of Delegates tells the story of this journey. PEN Myanmar has openly dedicated itself to strengthening freedom of expression and legal mechanisms in Myanmar, in addition to working on the pragmatic problems of publication and support of emerging writers.

Although there have been significant improvements to the freedom of expression and freedom of assembly situations in the country since 2010, the obstacles are huge and the center is already facing freedom of expression challenges.

PEN remains highly concerned about the following issues:

  • New legislation is weak. Draft bills on press require licenses to speak and the “right to protest law” requires “permission” and can be used to arrest gatherings of more than two people. Of particular concern is the Printing and Publishing Enterprise Law bill, passed by Myanmar’s lower house of parliament on July 4, 2013, and which is said to fall far below international standards.
  • National security provisions remain in place, including the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, the 2000 Internet Act, and the 2004 Electronic Transactions Act.
  • Almost all the political prisoners released since 2011 have only had their sentences suspended under Burma penal code 401, rather than having their sentences revoked.
  • Political prisoners were released with no program of restorative justice.
  • The democratization process and national dialogue excludes ethnic diversity. Ethnic conflict is seriously threatening the reform and national reconciliation process, and human rights violations are taking place in states with large minority populations on a large scale.
  • The regulations governing the Press Council, founded in October 2012, fall far short of international standards to guarantee freedom of the press.
  • Broadcasters are still government controlled.
  • There is an atmosphere of lawsuits – in particular a growing number of defamation cases against journalists.
  • Corruption levels are among worst in world.
  • There has been no constitutional change to reduce the power of the military in the administration of the country.

Write a Letter

  • Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of journalists Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Tint San who have been imprisoned solely in connection with their professional activities;
  • Seeking assurances that the five men are protected from torture or other ill-treatment, that they will not be transferred to remote prisons, that they have regular access to family members and lawyers of their choosing, and receive all necessary medical treatment;
  • Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all other prisoners of conscience in Myanmar, and to drop charges against any person arrested solely for the peaceful exercise of his or her right to freedom of expression;
  • Calling for all laws which impose unlawful restrictions on the right to freedom of expression to be repealed or amended in line with international human rights standards.

Send Your Letter To

President
Thein Sein
President’s Office
Nay Pyi Taw
Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Salutation: Your Excellency

Minister of Home Affairs
Lt Gen. Ko Ko
Ministry of Home Affairs
Office No. 10
Nay Pyi Taw
Republic of the Union of Myanmar
Salutation: Dear Minister

And copies to:
Chairman, Myanmar National Human Rights Commission
U Win Mra
27 Pyay Road, Hline Township
Yangon
Republic of the Union of Myanmar

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Myanmar in your country if possible, asking them to forward it to the Burmese authorities and welcoming any comments.

***Please send appeals immediately. Check with PEN if sending appeals after 31 August 2014. . ***

This article was originally published by PEN America on July 17, 2014.

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