A Myanmar court sentenced a local journalist on Friday to 15 days in prison or pay a 10,000-kyat (U.S. $7.70) fine for participating in a public prayer event for persecuted reporters last November.
A court in Kyauktada Township in the commercial capital Yangon handed down the sentence to Shwe Hmone, senior reporter at the Thamaga News Journal, who was charged under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law for protesting without a permit in the quasi-civilian-run Southeast Asian nation.
Shwe Hmone and dozens of other activists prayed for the release of fellow reporters at the Sule pagoda in the city center on Nov. 2, 2014, to mark the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists.
They also called for an end to repression against journalists and protection under existing laws, Shwe Hmone told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“A lot of reporters were arrested and given heavy sentences in 2014, some of whom are still waiting for court verdicts; and because of this, people released fish and birds and held prayer sessions at pagodas,” she said.
Authorities previously had told Shwe Hmone to hold the prayer session at another venue on the city’s outskirts, but she defied them, she said.
“In my case, we believed we didn’t need to ask permission from [city] authorities to pray for our colleagues, so we did it,” she said.
Of the roughly 50 people who were arrested during the event, Shwe Hmone was the only one charged, she said.
Friends and well-wishers paid the fine for her, she said.
Shwe Hmone’s defense lawyers will file an appeal in the coming days, she told the online journal The Irrawaddy.
Growing number of prosecutions
Myanmar’s media continues to suffer from censorship, weak protections, restrictive laws and intrusive bureaucratic structures that curb freedom of expression, according to a report on free expression in the country, issued this month by the New York-based PEN American Center.
The report noted a growing number of prosecutions and lengthy jail sentences for media workers, as well as harassment and physical attacks on reporters, and called on the incoming government of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party to safeguard free expression as a pillar of Myanmar’s developing democracy.
“The incoming government has its work cut out for it in terms of dismantling restrictions and ending the patterns of harassment and intimidation that continue to prevent the media from doing its job in holding authorities accountable,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN’s executive director, in a printed statement.
“We call on the new leadership to recognize that a truly free environment for media and expression is not a threat to its power, but rather the best way to secure the democracy it has so long awaited,” she said.
Under Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military rule, journalists could not write about corruption, poverty and natural disasters, and government crackdowns landed many reporters in prison.
President Thein Sein’s administration, which came into power in 2011, implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including laws ensuring media freedom. The government has abolished prepublication censorship and granted licenses to a number private publishing outlets.
Rights groups, however, contend that the intimidation and arrest of journalists have been growing worse in the former military state, and the government appears to be regressing with regard to new freedoms.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.