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Five employees of the now-defunct Unity Weekly journal have each been sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labour after being convicted of revealing state secrets.
Four reporters and the journal’s CEO were sentenced on Thursday afternoon under charges of trespassing and violating Burma’s colonial-era Official Secrets Act. Their charges were levied shortly after they published an investigative report in January alleging that a military facility was used for the production of chemical weapons.
“All five [Unity] staffs have been sentenced to ten years in prison each with labour,” said the defendants’ lawyer, Wah Win Maung.
“The KaPaSa [Myanmar Defence Industries] facility-24 was never designated as a prohibited area by the President,” he continued. “On those grounds, we argued that the five defendants should not be liable for charge under the State Secrets Act.”
At their final hearing on 2 July, Wah Win Maung requested during his closing comments that the charges be reassessed in light of the country’s new media law, which was approved after the five were arraigned.
All five defendants – reporters Lu Maw Naing, Sithu Soe, Aung Thura, Yazar Oo, and Unity Weekly’s CEO Tint Hsan – remained in custody throughout the trial, which proceeded despite several appeals by the group’s lawyer and immense criticism from Burma and beyond.
The case has often been used as a particularly egregious example of what some call a “backslide” on press freedoms in Burma.
“The verdict on the Unity staff has created a lot of concern about the authenticity of freedoms provided to the fourth estate amid the democratic reform process,” said Zaw Thet Htwe, a member of Burma’s Interim Press Council.
Since the transition from military rule to a nominally civilian government in early 2011, Burma has been commended for huge steps towards a free press; a pre-publishing censorship board was abolished in August 2012, and many media workers exiled for decades have begun their cautious return to the country.
Despite advances, new media legislation has been heavily criticised and claims persist that other laws are regularly manipulated to imprison or inhibit journalists. Zaw Thet Htwe sees the Unity case as a clear illustration of that possibility, remarking that the verdict “suggests that daily newspapers, weekly journals, online and broadcast media are at the risk of government prosecution at any time.”
Earlier this week, Burma’s President Thein Sein claimed that the country’s press was “one of the freest in Southeast Asia”, then proceeded to “warn” against using that freedom to “endanger the national security”. The government is also currently restricting some social media platforms after claims that “hate speech” played a role in a deadly bout of violence in Mandalay.