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Local reporters in Pegu Division’s town of Prome refused to cover a visit by Burmese Vice President Nyan Tun on Tuesday, choosing instead to stage a silent protest to show their support for the four reporters and CEO of Unity Weekly news journal who were recently sentenced to lengthy prison terms.
Four reporters and the CEO of Unity Weekly News journal were sentenced on Thursday to ten years in prison with hard labour under the Official Secrets Act by Magwe Divisional court. They were accused of revealing state secrets for publishing an investigative report in January alleging the existence of a military facility in Magwe that produces chemical weapons.
Local Prome reporter Kaung Myat Min said Tuesday that the media workers were protesting for the release of the five Unity Weekly staff members. Seated in the centre of town with black tape wrapped on their mouths, the roughly 20 Prome reporters sought to illustrate that the verdict serves as a way to intimidate and undermine independent reporting by the press.
“We see the verdict as an oppression of the media and a sign that the army will not be forgiving to those who write reports like Unity’s,” Kaung Myat Min said.
Their silent protest comes a day after five media workers from Bi-Mon Te Nay Weekly news journal were charged in Rangoon’s Pabedan Township with causing public alarm under the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act.
These charges were levied after the Bi-Mon Te Nay Weekly (literally “Bi-Noonday Sun”) published a front-page report last Monday falsely reporting that opposition National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic group leaders will be installed in an interim government.
Robert San Aung, a high court lawyer who will be defending the five, said that under these charges, the group could face up to seven years in prison.
“I learned that the five have been charged and remanded under Article 5(d) and 5(j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act,” Robert San Aung said, adding that the hearing is expected to commence on 23 July.
With two reporters and three editors gone, the Bi-Mon Te Nay Weekly will temporarily cease operations, said Aung Aung, a staff member of the weekly paper. He added that the police had also seized their office computers.
“So basically, we have no editors left. We cancelled this week’s issue, but we are trying to resume printing by Friday,” he said.
While most of the focus in recent months have centred on the trials of the Unity Weekly media workers, scrutiny on the government for Unity Weekly’s report of an alleged chemical weapons facility in Magwe has abated.
Yae Khe, a reporter from Mizzima News, called for more information on the alleged chemical weapons facility, and also promised that another protest will be staged for the release of the Bi-Mon Te Nay staff.
“We call the government to provide more information about the alleged chemical weapons factory. We also vow to stage another protest if the Bi-Mon Te Nay staff are not released,” he said.
Yae Khe is currently facing charges for staging a one-man protest in April calling for the release of then-jailed DVB reporter Zaw Pe. The verdict on his case will be announced by Prome Township’s court on Thursday.
Once optimistic about the press reforms instated by the nominally civilian government in 2012, local and international media — as well as press advocacy groups — are now criticising President Thein Sein’s government for an apparent backslide in its commitment to press freedom.