Myanmar President Thein Sein’s spokesman has defended the sentencing of five reporters to long prison terms for publishing articles about an alleged chemical weapons factory, saying the men had misrepresented themselves as workers to gain access to the facility which he said had never produced chemical weapons.
Rights groups have slammed the government over the conviction and sentencing Thursday of the journalists from Myanmar’s Unity Weekly News to 10 years of hard labor in prison, saying Thein Sein’s administration is only paying lip service to democratic reform.
The Unity News employees—chief executive Tint San and journalists Paing Htet Kyaw, Yazar Oo, Sithu Sore, and Lu May Naing—were charged under the 1923 State Secrets Act, enacted when the country was a British colony known as Burma.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview in Washington late Thursday, Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut, who is also Thein Sein’s spokesman, denied that chemical weapons were produced at the factory located on 3,000 acres of land allegedly confiscated from farmers in Magway’s Pauk town.
“It is a factory producing defense materiel for the Defense Ministry, but does not make chemical weapons,” said Htut, who arrived in the U.S. on July 5 as part of a four-member Burmese delegation to learn about U.S. foreign policy.
Moreover, the Unity reporters had misrepresented their roles as journalists, presenting themselves as laborers to gain access to the site and taking photos of the facility after they arrived, Htut said.
“They were charged with trespassing in a prohibited area,” Htut said, adding, “This is why we took action against them.”
“Under [Myanmar’s] current government, no one has action taken against them for criticizing the government, but if anyone—even me—does something that threatens national security, action will be taken against them.”
“If journalists know how to cover news within the boundary of the laws, they can avoid this kind of problem,” he said, adding, “Even a country like the United States would respond in the same way in these matters.”
'The wrong message'
The U.S. State Department said Friday that it was very concerned over the jailing of the journalists.
State Department press officer Peter Velasco said the sentence sends the "wrong message" about Myanmar's commitment to freedom of expression, the Associated Press reported.
He urged Myanmar to respect the rights of all journalists.
Rights groups have condemned the sentencing, saying that intimidation and arrests of journalists appear to be worsening in the former pariah state, even as official censorship has been lifted.
New York-based rights group Freedom House called the reporters' conviction “a huge blow for press freedom.”
It “is a huge blow for press freedom in Myanmar and reverses signs of positive change," said David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, in a statement.
"Convicting journalists under the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act for reporting news to Myanmar’s public violates the spirit of Myanmar’s 2014 Press Law and damages hope for a real democratic opening," Kramer said.
In a statement Thursday, Chairman of the Myanmar Writers and Journalists Association Ko Ko called the sentencing “sad news” and urged the government to engage the country’s media instead of moving to persecute it.
“As often happens during a transition period, there may have been misunderstandings between [the media and the government] and there may have been some mistakes on our side,” he said.
“But it would be better to solve issues by discussing them and assisting one another,” he added.
He called the sentences “a warning” by the government to the media, despite recently passed laws enshrining media freedom.
Reported by Khin Maung Soe for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.