DVB video journalist Zaw Pe was released from Thayat prison in Magwe at 1pm on Friday.
Win Myint Hlaing, charged alongside Zaw Pe, was also freed.
The pair’s release spells an end to a three-month term in Magwe’s Thayat Prison, yet the dark uncertainty over their future has been hanging over the pair for far longer.
“I have nothing to be grateful about,” complained Zaw Pe by telephone from outside the gates of the prison. “I shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place.”
Zaw Pe was released from custody on Friday after his one-year sentence for “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant” was reduced to three months.
It was August 2012 when Zaw Pe and Win Myint Hlaing, the father of a student, were arrested and charged with articles 448 and 353 of the Burmese penal code, respectively “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant on duty”. Those accusations were made after the pair attempted to conduct and interview at Magwe education department, into irregularities in the allocation of Japanese scholarship money.
On that day, Zaw Pe rolled his camera as Win Myint Hlaing questioned an education official, who, became irate and terminated the interview. The official later pressed charges and the pair were summoned to Magwe Police station. They were detained and questioned. Zaw Pe’s video camera, memory card and press badge were confiscated.
On 7 April, nearly two years later, Magwe Township Court found both men guilty of the two crimes and sentenced them to serve two one-year sentences concurrently. On Thursday a court upheld an appeal lodged on behalf of the pair by lawyer Thein Tun, who argued that Zaw Pe and Win Myint Hlaing were acting appropriately in their role as journalists.
Yet neither has been acquitted of their crimes, an acknowledgement of the continued ability for criminal codes to be contorted against journalists, says David Mathieson of Human Rights Watch.
“While great news for Zaw Pe and his family, it doesn’t excuse the fact he was unfairly charged and convicted, and laws are still used to intimidate Burmese media throughout the country.” Mathieson said. The national government should be guaranteeing the freedom of the media, not fostering an ambiguous and threateningly ambiguous environment that seeks to curtail their profession.
Zaw Pe’s conviction sparked a local and international condemnation. Amnesty International, labeled the DVB reporter a prisoner of conscience and set about a mass letter writing campaign.
Rupert Abbott, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director said that:
“Amnesty International welcomes the news that journalist Zaw Pe and Win Myint Hlaing have had their prison sentences reduced and are due to be released this weekend. However, the fact remains that they should not have been arrested and imprisoned in the first place.
“Many other prisoners of conscience – including journalists – remain jailed in Myanmar. They must all be immediately and unconditionally released. The Myanmar authorities must stop using oppressive legislation to punish peaceful dissent, or more people will continue to be imprisoned simply for peacefully exercising their human rights.”
[pullquote]”I have nothing to be grateful about. I shouldn’t have been jailed in the first place.”[/pullquote]
Burma Campaign UK ran a campaign to lobby British Foreign Secretary William Hague on behalf of the jailed reporter. Mark Farmaner, director of the rights group, said:
“It is very good news that Zaw Pe will be freed, but it would be wrong to think implies any improvement in press freedom. By jailing Zaw Pe the government has already achieved its goal of sending a warning message to journalists, and negative publicity about his case was damaging their reputation.
“There is a clear shift in tactics by the government to use shorter jail sentences to intimidate activists and media, rather than the decades long sentences they used to use, but which also draw stronger international condemnation.”
Rachel Wagley, policy director at US Campaign for Burma, also called on the Thein Sein government to adhere to promises of media reform.
“While Zaw Pe is now slated to be released and will be reunited with his family, his arrest and treatment call into question the Burmese government’s commitment to media freedom. The government must end the practice of politically arresting and charging journalists and instead build an environment where all journalists are granted basic rights.”
In that respect, Zaw Pe’s release is a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy Burmese media landscape. Revitalised by the revoking of pre-publication censorship, the repatriation of “exile media organisations” and the establishment of press councils independent from the Ministry of Information, the progression of media freedoms in Burma have been halted recently.
The Special Intelligence Department, commonly known as the Special Branch, started visiting various media companies last week, including the Voice Daily, Myanmar Post, People Era Weekly, The Irrawaddy, and the recently closed Unity Weekly, to interrogate staff on the financial details of how their paper is run.
The Interim Press Council, an autonomous network of media experts convened by presidential decree, characterized the Special Branch probes as harassment posing a disturbing threat to press freedom.
However, DVB Rangoon bureau chief Toe Zaw Latt hopes that restrictions on Burmese reporters will continue to wane, even in regional administrations seemingly slower to take up reforms than more metropolitan areas such as Rangoon.
“We see this as a very positive move by the authorities although we believe that he is innocent of both charges he was jailed under and that the sentence should be completely dropped.
“We expect that authorities in Magwe – in line with this country’s reforms – will have a more moderate sentiment on media workers in the future.”