IN WHAT SOME fear could be a backsliding to authoritarian rule, Burmese police arrested five local journalists over a report they published alleging the existence of a secret chemical weapons plant operated by former Burmese generals.
The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a regional network of media organizations advocating the freedom of the press, said the arrests were “a throwback to the junta days.” The organization added that the arrests were “a grim reminder to the media community in Burma (also known as Myanmar) that the recent relaxation of media freedoms in the country is still very limited.”
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism is a founding member of SEAPA.
An alert issued by SEAPA quoted an account of the arrest published by The Irrawaddy, a news magazine that specializes in Burmese issues. The Irrawaddy said the arrested journalists belong to the the publication Unity Weekly.
The five journalists were arrested for a news report entitled A secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township.” The Irrawaddy said the report included photos of the supposed chemical plant, and appeared in the January 25 edition of the publication.
Those arrested were Lu Maw Naing, a reporter in Pauk Township, Tint Sam the CEO of Unity Weekly, and reporters Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, and Sithu Soe.
Another Burmese publication, The Voice, said the five are being held at the notorious Insein prison on charges of leaking state secrets. The SEAPA news alert says the charges are non-bailable, and carry a possible death sentence.
The SEAPA alert said the three biggest journalist groups in Burma have already released a joint statement questioning the arrest, and calling on the Myanmar Press Council to “mediate in behalf of the detained journalists.”
The Myanmar Journalist Union, the Myanmar Journalist Association, and the Myanmar Journalist Network said the arrest of the five journalists “reminds us of the practice of the former military regime.”
“The incident puts a serious dent on the illusion of press freedom that the Myanmar government seeks to project.” said SEAPA executive director Gayathry Venkiteswaran.
“The arrest of the journalists and censorship of Unity Weekly’s 25 january issue also illustrates the urgent need for concrete guarantees to protect the work of journalists,” she added. “The credibility of the government, which has been carefully built up since 2011 is seriously at stake because of this incident, which appears more like a cover-up of the report.”
SEAPA added that while there is no independent confirmation yet of the Unity Weekly news report on the chemical weapons plant, such an installation would “seriously dent the international credibility of the government that has transitioned towards democracy over the last two years.”