Several leading actors in the international community have voiced concern and accused the Thein Sein government of backsliding on its commitment to media reform, following the sentencing to one year in prison of DVB reporter Zaw Pe on Monday.
The charges against Zaw Pe stem from an incident in August 2012 when he visited the Magwe Division Education Department to conduct an interview about a Japanese-funded scholarship programme. An educational officer subsequently pressed charges against the Burmese journalist and Win Myint Hlaing, the father of a student who was inquiring about the scholarships.
On Monday, a court in Magwe upheld the charges of “trespassing” and “disturbing a civil servant while on duty” and sentenced both the accused to one year concurrent on each charge.
“The jailing of Zaw Pe is the latest step in what appears to be a concerted effort to intimidate and restrict the media,” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. “There is serious backsliding on media freedom and there needs to be a very robust response from the international community.”
On Monday, Shawn Crispin, the senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said, “Today’s conviction of journalist Zaw Pe is the latest indication that Burma’s once-promising democratic reform program is rapidly being reversed. With at least five journalists now in jail, President Thein Sein’s vows to uphold press freedom ring increasingly hollow. We call for the immediate release of all reporters being held in Burma.”
In a statement, CPJ called for the verdict against Zaw Pe and Win Myint Hlaing to be overturned on appeal.
Andrew Leahy, public diplomacy officer at the US Embassy in Rangoon, told DVB on Monday that “the sentence given to Zaw Pe sends the wrong message to the international community and local journalists on the Union Government’s commitment to sustaining freedom of expression and to political reform.”
A British Embassy spokesperson said, “We are concerned by the jailing this week of DVB reporter Zaw Pe in Magway [Magwe]. Media freedoms are an essential element of democracy, and it is important that they are protected.”
David Mathieson, senior researcher on Burma for Human Rights Watch, said, “Zaw Pe’s sentencing is another reprehensible example of the government’s recidivism on press freedoms, pulling out military era provisions to intimidate the media. Unfortunately the national level parliament is failing to repeal these petty provisions utilized by capricious local officials and is instead drafting laws that will intimidate the press and curtail their ability to investigate corruption and malfeasance.”
DVB Multimedia Group on Monday released a statement denouncing the sentencing.
“DVB is confident that reporter Zaw Pe (a.k.a. Thura Thet Tin) was fulfilling his responsibility as a news reporter to inquire about a scholarship programme at the Magwe Township Education Department, which was in the public interest,” the statement read, “and therefore completely denounce his sentencing.
“Despite all the government officials’ pledges of press reform, we believe the jailing of Zaw Pe is an obstacle to media freedom in the country, and we call for the unconditional release of the reporter and his co-defendant,” the DVB statement read.
Last month, the trial began – also in Magwe – of four journalists and the CEO of Unity Weekly journal, charged with violating the State Secrets Act. The Unity staffers were charged after reporting in January about a factory allegedly concealing chemical weapons in Magwe’s Pauk Township.