About 200 journalists in Myanmar's capital Yangon staged a march Tuesday to protest against what they called new threats to media freedom following the jailing of a reporter from a newspaper which had highlighted judicial corruption, activists said.
They were joined by activist groups, parliamentarians, and lawyers concerned that the government of President Thein Sein will reimpose media controls even as it implements political and economic reforms after decades of harsh military rule.
Many wore black T-shirts with slogans such as, “We don’t want a threat to press freedom,” while some held a banner declaring that the “right to information is the life of democracy.”
The Myanmar Journalist Network, which organized the protest, said they went ahead with the march because the government had not responded to a letter from the group protesting the jailing of Ma Khine, a journalist with the Yangon-based award winning press group Eleven Media, who was ordered in December to serve three months in prison for trespassing, criminal defamation, and using obscene language.
She is believed to be the first reporter to be jailed since Thein Sein’s reformist government began releasing jailed journalists and lifting long-standing media restrictions in 2012.
"We protest because a journalist was convicted under three criminal charges while she was working on a news story. It's a direct threat to media freedom," Myanmar Journalist Network's general secretary Myint Kyaw told RFA's Myanmar Service.
"As a first step, we released a statement regarding this case and then sent the president a letter requesting her release. Our protest today is another step because we received no response," he said.
Sued by lawyer
Ma Khine was sued by a lawyer after she visited her house for an interview for a story about corruption. The lawyer was annoyed by her questioning and asked her to leave and later filed a lawsuit, according to Wai Phyo, chief editor of the Daily Eleven.
"The judge could have imposed a fine but deliberately gave the prison sentence not only to threaten the reporter but to threaten press freedom," the Associated Press quoted Wai Phyo as saying.
Aung Thura, another member of the Myanmar Journalist Network, said Ma Khine was tried on "unfair charges."
"We can write more openly than before since President Thein Sein came to power but we don't have real press freedom," Aung Thura complained, citing Ma Khine's jailing and the absence of laws protecting media freedom.
Many questioned the timing of Ma Khine's judgment, which came two weeks after the Eleven Media journal published the article "When bags of money replace judges in courts," using for the first time what it said was evidence to highlight examples of corruption in the judiciary.
Offenses such as trespassing and defamation in Myanmar usually result in fines and rarely lead to jailing.
"This suggests a first step taken by the judicial sector to control the media during the post-dictatorship era," Eleven Media said in a recent report, terming the conviction a "warning bell for journalists and press freedom in Myanmar."
Case review sought
Myanmar last year leapfrogged 18 places to 151st out of 179 in a World Press Freedom Index compiled by media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders, which has called for a review of Ma Khine's case.
"A news organization should not have to incur the risk of criminal proceedings and, in this case, the conviction of one of its reporters, because of its news coverage. Freedom of information is at stake," it said in a recent statement.
In Mandalay, a group of journalists could not obtain permission from the local authorities to stage a similar protest
"People in Yangon got permission to protest, but we didn't," said Min Din, a journalist in Mandalay.
"When we applied for permission to protest to the Aung Myay Thazan township police station, the police officers there told us that the division's government didn’t approve our application," Min Din said.
"Because we didn’t receive permission to protest, we prayed for Ma Khine in front of Mandalay jail [where she is serving her sentence] and we are praying for her at the Mahamuni Pagoda."
Reported by Sai Tun Aung Lwin and Sett Paing Toe for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.