Myanmar junta courts sentence 3 journalists to prison in 3 days

One rights activist says the moves are ‘more of the ongoing persecution of journalists.’
Reported by Wai Mar Tun
2022.03.23
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Members of the media gather outside Kamayut Township Court in Yangon, Myanmar, during a hearing in the case of Associated Press photographer Thein Zaw, who was arrested as he covered a demonstration against the military coup, March 12, 2021.
AFP

Myanmar military regime courts have sentenced three reporters to jail this week, amid an ongoing legal crackdown on journalists and others who publicly express their opposition to the junta, relatives of those imprisoned and work colleagues said.

At least 108 journalists have been arrested since the February 2021 military coup, though many have been released. According to Reporters Without Borders, about 57 journalists remain in prison and three have been killed after the coup.

Ye Yint Tun, a reporter at the Myanmar Thandawsint (Myanmar Herald) was handed a two-year prison sentence on Wednesday a family member told RFA. Authorities arrested him on Feb. 28, 2021 while he was covering a protest in Pathein, Ayeyarwady region, and charged under Section 505A and Section 505(b) Myanmar’s Penal Code.

The Myanmar junta’s special court in Insein Prison in Yangon sentenced Hanthar Nyein, an editor at Kamayut Media, to two years in prison with labor on Monday, while the Zabuthiri Township Court in Naypyidaw sentenced Than Htike Aung, a Mizzima editor, to two years in prison. Both were charged under Section 505A of the Penal Code.

Section 505A prohibits causing fear, spreading false news and agitating crimes against a government employee — all nonbailable offences punishable by up to three years in prison. Critics say it serves as a legal catch-all for bringing criminal charges against a broad range of individuals deemed to pose a challenge to the military regime’s authority.

Myanmar’s State Administration Council, appointed by the country’s military after it seized power in the Feb. 1, 2021 coup, added the new section to create new offenses and expand existing ones that target individuals who speak critically of the coup and the military, and those who encourage others to support the Civil Disobedience Movement, a broad coalition of opponents of military rule.

Section 505(b) criminalizes publishing or circulating “any statement, rumor or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public or to any section of the public whereby any person may be induced to commit an offense against the state or against the public tranquility.”

“In Myanmar, media freedom has never been guaranteed fully. Now, the media freedom in the country is completed gone. This case is proof for that,” said an editor from Mizzima who is a colleague of Than Htike Aung.

“The authorities are arresting, attacking and interrogating the news media, viewing the journalists as their enemy,” said the woman who requested anonymity for safety reasons.

She also said that if independent media stopped operating and broadcasting the news, the military council would fully control the narrative and publish only its propaganda.

‘Ongoing persecution of journalists’

Court attorney Zaw Min Hlaing said the regime is charging anyone who obstructs its interest under Section 505A, accusing them of damaging reputation of the state and the military.

“They are charging anyone who wrote pieces critical of the members of government, the military or the state,” he told RFA.

“They are charging organizations that could hinder their work under Section 505(A),” he said. “If the journalists report the truth and it seems detrimental to their interest, they frame it as an offense against the state.”

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the military regime had no reason to charge and sentence Hanthar Nyein and Than Htike Aung.

“This is more of the ongoing persecution of journalists and the efforts by the military to censor any sort of news that they don’t control,” he told RFA.

RFA could not reach Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun, a spokesman for the military council, for comment, though he previously said at a news conference after the coup that the junta was taking action under the law regarding people from the media.

Authorities arrested Than Htike Aung on March 1, 2021 while he was covering the court trial of the Win Htein, the then top leader of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD), at Dekkhinathiri Township Court in Naypyidaw. Since then, he has been detained in the capital’s prison.

Similarly, Han Thar Hyein was arrested on March 9, 2021 during a raid by military authorities on Kamayut Media’s office in Yangon. At the time, authorities also arrested the outlet’s editor-in-chief, Nathan Maung, who was released in June 2021 after they found out that he is a U.S. citizen.

They were charged with dissemination of information or “fake news” that could agitate or cause security forces or officials to mutiny,” an offence that carries a maximum three-year prison term.

Nathan Maung said that he and Hanthar Nyein had been tortured while in the detention center.

‘Journalists as the enemy’

In March 2021, the junta cancelled the operating license of Mizzima News, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), 7Day News, Myanmar Now and Khit Thit News. Two months later, it terminated the license of Kachin state-based Myitkyina News Journal.

“Unfortunately, the Myanmar junta sees journalists as the enemy, and it is continuing to search for and hunt down journalists who are still operating in the country, arresting them, abusing them, and then sentencing them to prison,” Robertson said.

Journalists in Myanmar are risking their lives to do their jobs, said an official at the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, a Thailand-based rights organization.

“Since Feb. 1, 2021, journalists in Myanmar have not been able to do their jobs freely,” said the official who requested anonymity for safety reasons. “Now, it has gotten worse. The journalists have to take huge risks to report.”

Reporters and editors who remain in the country are doing an admirable job, but they not only could go to jail for their work, they also could lose their lives, he said.

Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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