Five media workers have been sentenced to two years in prison in Myanmar over the publication of a news story. Rights groups say they are prisoners of conscience, detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression and that the sentence is out of proportion for a reporting error.
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and Amnesty International are condemning the two year jail sentences that a court in Myanmar imposed on five members of the weekly Bi Mon Te Nay (Bi Midday Sun) staff. The five men had been arrested between July 7th – 16th after the Bi Midday Sun misreported on July 7th that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi was forming an interim government.
Editors Ko Win Tin and Thura Aung, assistant editors Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khine and journalist Kyaw Zaw Hein from the Bi Midday Sun newspaper in Myanmar were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment by the Pabedan Township Court in Yangon on October 16th.
“This sentence is out of all proportion and constitutes a serious violation of media freedom,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, head of the Reporters Without Borders Asia desk. “It shows that Burma’s current authorities have no intention of abandoning the former military government’s repressive legislation and using the new legislation, which shows more respect for freedom of information.”
Reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, managing editor Ko Win Tin and Editor-in-chief Thura Aung who were arrested in Yangon on July 7th and 8th were first taken for interrogation to two different places in Yangon, where they were held for two weeks without access to lawyers or their families, before being transferred to Yangon’s Insein prison.
At the time, all five were initially charged under Myanmar’s Emergency Provisions Act, but subsequently charged under Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which provides for up to two years’ imprisonment for anyone who makes, publishes or circulates information which may cause public fear or alarm, and which may incite people to commit offenses “against the State or against the public tranquility.”
Human rights defenders, journalists and political activists continue to be arrested in Myanmar simply for the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression, a right enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).
Amnesty International has expressed concern about a range of laws in Myanmar, including Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which are used to restrict the right to freedom of expression, and has consistently called for these laws to be repealed or else brought into line with international human rights law and standards.
This call has also been made by the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Tomás Ojea Quintana, who had particularly identified Section 505(b) as one of a number of laws in the country used to jail prisoners of conscience.
At the initial hearing in August, charges against a third assistant editor, Ye Ming Aung, were dropped and the judge ordered her release. RSF said at the time that the Myanmar government should protect freedom of information and drop all charges against the others and ask the Press Council to handle the case instead of the courts.
Amnesty International said it is concerned by reports that the Myanmar authorities had earlier pressured four of the media workers into changing their lawyer by threatening them with longer prison sentences. They had previously been represented by a high profile human rights lawyer with connections to the international community.
The international human rights group said that it also continues to receive reports about prison conditions in Myanmar falling below international standards. These concerns include lack of access to adequate medical treatment, clean drinking water, nutritious food, and water for bathing .Amnesty has called on the Myanmar authorities to ensure that conditions of detention comply with those set out in the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Two years in prison is the maximum sentence for an erroneous press report under article 505(b) of the criminal code. Section 505 (b) of the penal code covers defamation and states: “Whoever makes, publishes or circulates any statement, rumour or report with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state or against the public tranquility shall be punished with imprisonment which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”
The arrest of the Bi Mon Te Nay staff members in early July came just days before five Unity Weekly journalists received ten-year jail terms on July 10th on charges of violating state secrets. In response to the outcry about the crackdown on the media, President Thein Sein met with members of the Press Council on August 1st and assured them that he would mediate in the event of any problem.
One of the five journalists, Kyaw Zaw Hein, said at the end of the trial “This is totally unfair and if the country wants to change into a democracy, it needs press freedom.”
The five men plan to appeal against their convictions. They are all currently detained in Yangon’s Insein prison.
Pending their unconditional release, rights groups are calling on the authorities to ensure that Kyaw Zaw Hein, Ko Win Tin, Thura Aung, Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing are not tortured or ill-treated in detention, that they have access to lawyers of their choosing and to visits from family members, that they are not transferred to prisons far from their relatives and that their conditions of detention meet international standards.
They also urge the authorities to take immediate steps to repeal or amend legislation which restricts the right to freedom of expression, in strict compliance with international human rights law and standards.
Myanmar is ranked 145th out of 180 countries in the 2014 Reporters Without Borders press freedom index.