Several newspapers in Myanmar printed black front pages on Friday in protest against the jailing of a journalist pursuing a story on education, saying such imprisonments trampled on their right to report the news.
Many of the blacked-out page-ones included a protest message against the sentencing of Zaw Pe, a 40-year-old video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) who was handed a one-year jail term on Monday.
He was convicted by the Magway township court of “trespassing” and “disturbing a public servant” while trying to interview an education official, prompting an outcry from international rights groups.
The popular Daily Eleven newspaper and its weekly publication sported black covers on Friday, while Mizzima printed a black column down the side of the front page and DVB replaced its Facebook cover photo with an all-black image.
Other publications printed black panels on their covers on Wednesday or Thursday.
Zayar Hlaing, editor of Maw Kun magazine (The Chronicle) which also took part in the campaign, said various news outlets were joining together in their “black page” protest because Zaw Pe’s case had threatened their own reporters’ freedom to carry out their work.
“We are doing this campaign to black out the front pages of several journals and newspapers—including The Messenger, Daily Eleven, and Mizzima—because the jail sentence handed down to DVB reporter Zaw Pe goes against journalists’ freedom and right to cover the news,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Zaw Pe, also known as Thura Thet Tin, was arrested in August 2012 after visiting the Magway Region Education Department to conduct an interview about a Japanese-funded scholarship program.
Zaw Pe was released on bail the next month, but after Monday’s sentencing was transported to Magway’s Thayet prison to serve his sentence.
Journalists held a ceremony at Yangon’s Sule Pagoda on Thursday to pray for his release.
Global press freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders issued a statement Thursday expressing “outrage” at Zaw Pe’s conviction.
"It is unacceptable that local officials can obstruct a journalist's work and have him sentenced to imprisonment just because they feel he disturbed them," the group’s Asia-Pacific head Benjamin Ismail said in the statement.
The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists said earlier this week the case showed Myanmar was backtracking on reforms carried out in recent years following decades under military rule.
Zaw Pe’s conviction was “the latest indication that [Myanmar’s] once-promising democratic reform program is rapidly being reversed,” the group’s Southeast Asia representative Shaw Crispin said, calling on Myanmar to release imprisoned journalists.
In February, four reporters and the chief executive of Unity Journal were arrested and charged under the Official Secrets Act for a story about an alleged chemical weapons factory.
In December, Daily Eleven reporter Ma Khine was ordered to serve three months in prison for trespassing, criminal defamation, and using obscene language.
Her case was believed to be the first jailing of a reporter since President Thein Sein’s reformist government began releasing jailed journalists and lifting long-standing media restrictions in 2012.
In 2012, Thein Sein shut down Myanmar’s notorious censorship board and granted private daily newspapers the right to publish for the first time in 50 years, but critics have said that recent moves by the government have threatened those gains and have called for laws to protect them.
Reported by Tin Aung Kyaw for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.