A lawyer representing a group of reporters in Myanmar sentenced to 10 years of hard labor in prison for compromising national security after publishing articles about an alleged chemical weapons factory said Tuesday that he will appeal their conviction, as local journalists protested the court ruling.
Robert San Aung, the lawyer for four reporters of the Unity Weekly News, described the decision handed down by the Pakokku District Court in central Myanmar’s Magway region last week as “unfair."
He said he would appeal through the regional court as soon as he receives an official copy of their sentence.
“[We will appeal] because we believe it was an unfair decision … We believe that we will have a fair chance at the regional court,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Robert San Aung said that it was unclear whether the lawyer for Unity’s chief executive Tint San, who was handed the same sentence, would also appeal his client’s verdict.
Unity’s Tint San and journalists Paing Htet Kyaw, Yazar Oo, Sithu Sore, and Lu Maw Naing were sentenced on July 10 under the 1923 State Secrets Act in a court ruling which said they had published state secrets and trespassed in a prohibited area while gathering information for their story.
The weekly had published an article in late January alleging that the military had confiscated more than 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres) of farmland to build a chemical weapons factory in Magway’s Pauk town under the instruction of former junta strongman Than Shwe.
The article included testimony from area residents and photos of the alleged facility. A subsequent article published by Unity, which has since gone out of business, included a government denial of the allegations that the factory could produce chemical weapons.
“They were sentenced for publishing state secrets and trespassing, but we doubt that the government really had a secret [at the weapons plant] and if [the reporters] really leaked anything,” Robert San Aung said.
“We are simply saying that they shouldn’t have been sentenced under that charge if there was no secret and no information leak.”
The lawyer said the four reporters also want to appeal their sentence “because we don’t want the country’s image to be tarnished by this verdict.”
Following the court ruling last week, international rights groups called for the release of the five men and said that their sentencing shows Myanmar’s government is backtracking on reforms it has made, including allowing increased media freedom.
The sentence is one of the harshest leveled at journalists since President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 and rolled back tough restrictions on the media imposed by the military regime, which did not tolerate dissent.
But rights groups have highlighted mounting concerns over press freedoms in recent months, following several cases of criminal prosecutions against the media.
The sentencing has also drawn criticism at home, with the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association saying that a crackdown on the media since the beginning of the year has created an environment that feels “unsafe” for journalists and urging the government to engage the press instead of moving to persecute it.
On Tuesday, around 20 journalists from Bago region’s Pyay, Letpadan, and Aunglan townships marched through Pyay protesting the jailing of the Unity reporters and calling for their release.
Kaung Myat Min, a journalist from the Irrawaddy newspaper who took part in the protest, said that the group had applied for a permit to march, but were refused because Myanmar’s Vice-President Nyan Tun was visiting the area.
“Nyan Tun, the vice-president, came to Pyay to worship at the pagodas in the Sri Kestra ancient city, but none of us would go there to cover the news,” he said.
“[Instead,] We sat in front of the Pyay District Court and protested against the unfair sentences for the Unity journalists. We carried out a silent protest by covering our mouths with stickers which read, ‘The arrest of journalists is oppression of the media’.”
The protest followed one on Saturday by more than 50 journalists who attempted to address their concerns over media freedom with Thein Sein as he was due to meet reporters after discussing Myanmar’s art scene with local celebrities in the former capital Yangon.
According to a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma, journalists covering the press conference arrived wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Stop Killing Press.”
The group was stopped from entering by police, but the journalists lined up in front of the building, laid down their cameras, and taped their mouths shut in silent protest, DVB reported.
The report said that more than 50 participants have now been indicted for protesting without permission—a charge that authorities regularly employ to head off demonstrations.
Reported by Yadanar Oo and Khin Pyae Son for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.