BURMA / MYANMAR: Immediate need for fair trial and remedies
BURMA / MYANMAR: Immediate need for fair trial and remedies for free speech
July 21, 2014
During the three year period of new Myanmar Government, new political reforms have been taking place. The authorities stopped censoring the media in June 2012 and also allowed private news media groups to print newspapers in April 2013. As people in Burma only had state owned newspapers for the previous decade, elderly journalists and society of media appreciated this with welcoming heart. Today, news outlets can freely debate political issues and human rights abuse cases that they could not discuss during the military dictatorship, not because they were afraid of but because they could not get published. Even after they stopped censorship, prosecution of the government started to bring journalists in accordance with applicable laws.
On 10 July 2014, four Journalists and a Chief Executive Director of Unity weekly news journal were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour under Section 3(1)(a) the “Burma Official Secrets Act 1923” because of article on an army own factory. The Asian Human Rights Commission has already issued an urgent appeal on this case (AHRC-UAC-066-2014). As the responsible officer of the factory said, in court, that the factory is not a chemical weapon factory, there is no evidence that the accused sent documents to other powerful country and there is no signboard or any gazette order which shows the place is prohibited, it is obvious that the journalists committed no crime under the law under which they were charged.
The president in a radio speech on July 7 indicated that “the media is one of the freest in South-East Asia”. However, he warned if any media exploits press freedom to endanger national security rather than for the good sake of the country, it will face effective action under the existing law. According to his threat, the practical procedure will be to sentence journalists to periods of imprisonment, even up to or exceeding ten years, like the Unity five.
In addition to the Unity case, the chief editor and two members of the editorial board of the Bi Mon Tae Nay (Noon) weekly news journal have also been prosecuted for an article it published. The authorities opened a case against them under Section 5(j) of the Emergency Provisions Act. Although on 20 March 2014 the government enacted a new media law, the journalists had action brought against them under another existing law that can punish them with long-term imprisonment. Protesting the move, more than 50 news journalists were also prosecuted for a silent demonstration to the president, wearing T-shirts with the sticker ‘Stop Killing Press’ and taping their mouths. The journalists are trying to get remedies for their colleagues and for the freedom of expression. Although they have been prosecuted in different ways, they still are fighting to stop oppression of the media.
According to the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar, every citizen shall be free to express and publish freely their convictions and opinions, and to assemble peacefully without arms. Yet, citizens in Burma still cannot get chances to practice these rights without fear of punishment. As the judicial system is not yet independent, the decisions of judges in these matters are controlled by government authorities: same as during the former decades of military dictatorship. The highest punishment against journalists indicates that there is no robust freedom of expression in Burma yet, and that the government is threatening the entire media not to dare to write against it.
The Asian Human Rights Commission calls for the immediate release of the journalists who have been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and to halt the prosecution of the 50 other journalists. The AHRC also condemns the colonial-era act the Government of Myanmar has used to prosecute the Unity journalists and calls for its revocation. Lastly, the AHRC also calls for transparency in judicial affairs without any interference by the government on the judges deciding in criminal cases.