On August 26th 2014, Myanmar authorities dropped charges against fifty journalists previously accused of peaceful protest arising from a gathering on July 12th 2014. Police decided to stop the investigation and refused to bring the case to court. However, the journalists who were charged have expressed concern that this announcement does not completely put them out of risk.
The journalists say that the police did not send them any official letters concerning their charges. They also did not receive any written notifications that may confirm the dismissal of the case. This fact raises serious concerns that the police can still use the case for future harassment and intimidation of the journalists, says human rights organization Front Line Defenders.
The fifty journalists had previously been identified, questioned and charged with violation of Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act of 2012.
Front Line Defenders urges the authority to issue an official order confirming the disposal of the case and also to refrain from similar harassment of human rights defenders and journalists.
The 50 protested against the sentencing on July 10th 2014 in Pakokku Township Court of four journalists and the CEO of the Unity Weekly Journal. The five Unity Weekly journalists were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labor under the Official Secrets Act 1923 for “disclosing state secrets.” Those accusations related to the publication of a report challenging the transparency of government policy, specifically in relation to a military facility allegedly being used to manufacture chemical weapons.
Since the transition from military rule to a civilian government in early 2011, Myanmar has been commended by many for its 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.
Then, Myanmar’s Interim Press Council, a semi-independent body, was established in September 2012. Independent journalists are also included in this council. This council is at present drafting a new ‘’Print Media Law and Broadcast Media Law.’’
Sayeed Ahmed, Protection Coordinator at Front Line, says that ‘’the establishment of the press council was welcomed and was seen as a positive move from a regime of total censorship in Myanmar. However, ahead of next year’s presidential election,President Thein Sein and the military in the background seem nervous with the increased press freedom.’’
It is believed that the decision to drop the charges has come as a result of a meeting between President Thein Sein and the Information Ministry and Interim Press Council in mid-August.
On July 10th, the verdict against four journalists and the owner of Unity
Journal was handed down; they were each sentenced to ten years in prison with
labor for publishing an investigative report in January 2014 alleging that a military facility was used for the production of chemical weapons. The journal was defunct anyway. Yet, this harsh punishment was seen by other journalists as a threat to their freedom. So they came out in huge protest. On July 12th, they were protesting outside the Myanmar
Peace Centre (MPC), where the President was paying a visit.
The police then filed a case against 50 unnamed journalists, basically to leave it open to arrest any leading journalist they want. The press council then had a series of meetings with the authority and finally the announcement came from the police.
Deputy Station Officer Maung Maung Oo, who levied the charges, said “We haven’t brought the case to court, and we have stopped the police investigation. But as we all have to live under the law, anyone who breaks the law again will be charged.”
Shwe Hmon, one of the 50 journalists who were charged, said “They didn’t send us official letters about the charges. Now they have dismissed the case without informing us. We, the media, can’t understand the laws and systems of power in our country.”
Since the charge was with the police station and it did not reach the court and has since been dismissed by the court, there is the chance to revive the charge any time by the police.
Front Line recommends that Myanmar repeal Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly act which criminalizes assembly without prior permission. The organization also encourages the government to refrain from bringing charges against unnamed people in mass.
Specifically regarding this case, they say that the police should close the case in their record and following the procedures they follow normally to do so, and also to make that evidence available to media and public. So far the notice of dropping the charges is just an informal announcement.