The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) is distressed at the recent imprisonment of five journalists from the Yangon-based Unity weekly news and current affairs magazine and the arrest and detention of four more journalists from the Bi Mon Te Nay (Midday Sun) newspaper in Myanmar.
On July 10 reports said the Pokokku District court had sentenced four journalists and the CEO of Unity to 10 years’ hard labour after publishing reports claiming the existence of a chemical weapons factory linked to China. Unity had published two reports about a secret facility had been built in 2009 in tunnels near Pakokku, in central Myanmar's Magway region. The journalists were found guilty of breaching the Official Secrets Act 1923.
Reports say the editor of Bi Mon Te Nay and three of its journalists were arrested and detained after a report erroneously claimed that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had been appointed to an interim government to serve until after next year’s elections. The reports say authorities are considering charging the four under section 5 of the Emergency Provisions Act 1950 which forbids the “spread [of] false news, knowing, or having reason to believe that it is not true”.
Journalists are increasingly fearful for press freedom in Myanmar following these recent comments by President U Thein Sein. In a July 7 speech the President said that “effective legal action” will be taken against media that harms to national security.
Myanmar’s Interim Press Council has sought a meeting with the President. The council has urged the President to grant an amnesty in the Unity case as a sign of magnanimity saying it is evident that the Unity journalists did not intentionally breach the Official Secrets Act.
Regarding the arrest of Bi Mon Te Nay journalists, the council said it disapproved of the arrest, interrogation and imprisonment of the journalists, adding that the authorities’ behaviour threatens media freedom and the government’s transformation process to democracy.
In March 2014, the Myanmar government enacted two media laws that were heavily criticized by journalists as ushering in a subtle form of censorship. Just last month, intelligence officers began probing the internal operations of news publications.
The IFJ is concerned these incidents harm Myanmar at a time when it must embrace a free press. “Press freedom cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Democratic governments must accept that the role of the media is to scrutinise the powerful and hold governments to account for the actions they do in our name. When the media gets it wrong, then they should be given the opportunity to correct the error. Journalists and editors must not be arrested, detained and imprisoned for simply doing their jobs.”