An eighth court hearing for the CEO and four reporters of Unity Weekly news journal took place at a court in the town of Pakokku on Monday morning.
The five were arrested after Unity published a report on 25 January alleging that a factory in Magwe Division was in fact secretly manufacturing chemical weapons. CEO Tint San and four reporters – Sithu Soe, Paing Thet Kyaw, Yazar Oo and Lu Maw Naing – were subsequently charged with violating the State Secrets Act.
Aung Thein, defence lawyer for the Unity Weekly staff, said the judge listened to statements by the prosecutor and prosecution witnesses on 28 April, but that he intended to object to the procedure as it was not conducted in conformity with statute law.
“The court on Monday heard accounts by the prosecutor and prosecution witnesses for charges brought against the defendants under a ‘special law’ within the penal code which may later be changed to a general law,” he told DVB. “But for the moment, this procedure is not in conformity with statute law and so we are set to present an oral argument on this.”
Government representatives, in response to the Unity report, have rejected the accusations, saying that the factory in question is a standard ordnance factory and that no chemical weapons have been developed there.
Theingi Tun, wife of defendant Yazar Oo, said the detained journalists were suffering from depression and heat exhaustion, and that they had little access to clean water.
“The reporters, having been previously based in Rangoon, are not used to Pakokku’s hot weather and so cannot eat properly – they are also facing difficulties of access to clean water – especially my husband who has a liver condition. They are also suffering from depression,” she said.
The Unity trial is one of a spate of cases involving Burmese journalists in recent weeks. On Saturday, a Mizzima reporter who organised a rally in support of media freedom in central Burma was charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act.
Another journalist, Ma Khine of Eleven Media, spent more than two months in jail on charges of trespassing, using abusive language, and defamation. The charges were brought against her following a scheduled interview with a lawyer for a report about corruption.
A DVB video journalist based in Magwe, Zaw Pe, was sentenced on 7 April and is currently incarcerated in Magwe Division’s Thayet prison. In August 2012, he and another civilian were arrested for investigating a Japanese scholarship programme operating in the town’s schools.
According to a Magwe-based member of the Myanmar Journalist Network, U Tun, journalists and media activists in the central Burmese town are planning to stage a rally on 7 May to demand the release of all jailed reporters in the country, as well as calling for greater press freedom.
“We are presently holding a meeting to organise the protest and will seek official permission from the police later today,” U Tun told DVB on Tuesday morning.
“But whether we get official permission or not, we are still going to hold the demonstration.”