A court in Myanmar’s commercial capital Yangon on Thursday sentenced five journalists to two-year jail terms Thursday for sedition after their paper falsely claimed that an interim government had replaced President Thein Sein’s administration.
Lawyers and fellow journalists considered the sentences imposed on the publisher, an editor and three reporters from the Bi Mon Te Nay (in English, Midday Sun) weekly as harsh because the court had meted out the maximum term prescribed by the law.
After the verdict by the Pabedan township court, defense lawyer Kyaw Win told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the five should have been charged under the country’s Media Law, rather than Section 505(b) of the Penal Code, which prohibits statements that could cause public chaos and carries a much heavier maximum punishment.
“A two-year sentence is the maximum for persons charged under Section 505(b),” Kyaw Win said.
“We appealed to [the court to] consider the case through the Media Law, but the court did not mention having done so in its final verdict.”
The Media Law was approved in March and states that any dispute arising from a news article should first be mediated by Myanmar’s Interim Press Council—which was set up last year in response to pressure to consult journalists on new press laws—before being referred to the court.
Kyaw Win said that the defendants would appeal the sentence to a higher court.
Local media reported that several journalists had held a protest in front of the Pabedan township court over what they said was a harsh sentence.
At the conclusion of the trial, two of the sentenced reporters who left the building handcuffed together under police escort told reporters gathered outside that the decision was “too much” for the alleged crime and demanded “fairness and justice for every member of the media.”
Threat to media freedom
Htin Kyaw, father of jailed editor Aung Than, told RFA that the verdict had set a bad precedent for media freedom in the country.
“They are members of the media, so the charge should have been leveled through the Media Law, which carries a lighter [maximum] term of three months of jail time and … fines,” Htin Kyaw said.
“If this kind of practice continues in the future, I think Myanmar’s media will not be free anymore,” he said, adding that supporters of the defendants “don’t agree with this sentence.”
Khin Aung, whose son Min Wathan was among the reporters jailed, said he was saddened by the sentence.
“Our lawyer appealed to the court and none of the 22 witnesses from both [the prosecution and defense] testified that the defendants had violated the law as charged,” he said.
“But the judge, [out of] fear, desire, anger and ignorance, sentenced them to the maximum term.”
The five journalists were arrested on July 8 and their journal was shut down, a day after publishing an announcement by activist group Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF) which falsely claimed that National League for Democracy (NLD) chief Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic political leaders had formed an interim government.
MDCF leader Htin Kyaw has been sentenced to nearly a dozen years in prison on charges filed in nearly a dozen townships for distributing leaflets with the erroneous information.
Htin Kyaw ended a hunger strike on Wednesday after nearly two weeks of protest against his reported detention in solitary confinement at the notorious Insein Prison in Yangon, sources told RFA, citing poor health as his reason for aborting the fast.
The Irrawaddy online journal quoted Thiha Saw, a member of the Press Council, as saying that authorities had declined to bring the case against the Bi Mon Te Nay journal to the council for mediation because the additional rules and regulations for the Media Law had not yet been approved by Thein Sein.
“The law is not complete … That is why the judge doesn’t use the [Media] Law and accepted charges under the Penal Code,” he said, adding that the rules and regulations of the press law were expected to be passed “within months.”
While the Media Law was enacted in March, it is not in effect because government has not enacted by-laws, despite having been required to do so within 90 days.
Under Myanmar’s nearly five decades of military rule, journalists were forbidden to cover certain topics such as corruption, poverty and natural disasters, and government crackdowns landed many reporters in prison.
Thein Sein’s reformist administration, which came to power in 2011, has implemented a series of reforms to push Myanmar towards democracy, including new laws enshrining media freedom.
But rights groups say that the intimidation and arrest of journalists appeared to be worsening in the former military state, even though official censorship has ended.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.