FROM HARD NEWS to hard labor.

Regional media groups have condemned what they called the “inhumane sentence” by a Burmese court of four journalists and their boss to ten years of hard labor for violating Burma’s State Secrets Act.

On Thursday, the Pakokku Township Court in Mandalay, Burma (also known as Myanmar) sentenced Unity Journal’s CEO, Tin Hsan, 52, and journalists Lu Maw Naing, 28; Sithu Soe, 22; The Yazar Oo, 28, and Aung Thura, 25, to 10 years imprisonment with hard labor for reporting allegations that a Burmese military facility was being used to manufacture chemical weapons.

The Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA), a regional network of media groups advocating press freedom, said it was disturbed both by the verdict and the heavy verdict imposed on the mediamen.

“The charges and the outcome are disproportionate to the problem at hand. We condemn the criminalization of media work, and in this case, the cruel punishment of hard labour,” SEAPA said in a statement released to the press.

“No journalist should have to face this kind of action for their work, and in the case of the Unity Journal, the issue covered clearly had immense public interest,” SEAPA said.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) called the decision “an outrage,” saying it shows that the Burmese government is still to undertake real reforms with regard to press freedom.

“These developments make it all to clear that democracy and respect for basic rights, including freedom of the press and of expression, remain furthest from the minds of Myanmar’s leaders,” the NUJP said in a statement,

SEAPA Executive Director Gayathry Venkiteswaran said the sentencing comes just three months after the passage of Burma’s Press Law, which she said had given “a glimmer of hope” that the five journalists would be given a measure of protection as media workers.

The new law was supposed to guarantee “that no journalist may be jailed for doing her or his work.”

However, the Burmese government chose to apply a 90-year old law against the five men.

“Using the 1920 State Secrets law demonstrates that the Burmese military is not even willing to respond to, ?and come clean regarding the regime’s potential violation of the an international ban against the manufacture of chemical weapons,” Venkiteswaran said in the SEAPA statement. “The use of this law indicates that the regime may really have something to hide in relation to the serious allegations of the expose. Invoking the matter as a state secret meant that there will be no need to confirm or deny the veracity of the claims of Unity Journal.”

While the sentence was handed down by a local court, the charges were filed by the Office of the Myanmar President Thein Sein, “the poster boy of the transition.”

“This is a signal to use laws other than those related to media as a new means to restrict journalists,” Venkiteswaran added.

“The arbitrary detention and unjust sentencing of the Unity journalists represents the country’s most drastic reversals of media freedom,” she said.

The international community had earlier lauded what appeared to be the loosening of restrictions against the Burmese press and the improvement of civil liberties in Burma in the last few years. Recently, however, the Burmese government had resumed cracking down on critical reporting by the growing local media community.

The five were arrested by the Burmese military in January after the Unity Journal published the report on the military facility, including photographs of the alleged chemical weapons factory.

“We didn’t expect they would get sentences with hard labor. How could they sentence 10 years with hard labor for reporting news? This is inhumane and we are now worrying for their health,” said Lwin Lwin Myint, wife of Lu Maw Naing, in a report published by Burmese news agency The Irrawady.

The Irrawady also published an editorial expressing alarm over what it called the use of draconian restrictions on media even after the government claimed to have lifted press censorship two years ago.

“Clearly, real press freedom remains a distant dream for Burma, where the government still gets to decide what is fit to print, and who has the right to inform (or misinform) the public,” The Irrawaddy editorials reads.

“We stand by our Burmese colleagues and urge media organizations in Southeast Asia and all over the world to raise our voices in collective protest against this outrage,” the NUJP statement reads. Cong B. Corrales


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