The trial of four journalists and the CEO of Unity Weekly journal, charged with violating the State Secrets Act, began on Monday at Pakokku district court in Burma’s Magwe Division.
The Unity staffers were charged after reporting in January about a factory allegedly concealing chemical weapons in Magwe’s Pauk Township.
According to the defendants’ lawyer, Robert San Aung, the first day’s proceedings involved opening remarks by one of the public prosecutors.
Paing Thet Kyaw, a senior reporter at Unity Weekly and standing trial, said the charges brought against them are unjust.
“Throughout our case they have made many falsifications. Even the witnesses they bring are made up,” he said.
A request for bail for reporter Lu Maw Naing for health reasons was rejected, however the prison department was called on to promise that they will ensure he receives the appropriate treatment.
The front-page article published by Unity Weekly on 25 January was headlined: “Ex-Senior General, Chinese Expert and Current Chief of Staff Build Secret Chemical Weapons Factory in Pauk Township”. The report quoted factory workers and local residents confirming allegations that chemical weapons were being manufactured at the plant in question.
The journalists allegedly trespassed in a prohibited area on the factory grounds but Paung Thet Kyaw told DVB that villagers had testified to the township court that the ‘no-entry’ signs were erected only after the publication of the article.
“The villagers already said in front of the township judge that the signs were posted after the publication in the Unity journal. Township Judge Daw Swe Swe Aye has recorded this,” he said.
Copies of the paper were seized across the country and the agency’s chief executive officer, Tint San, was arrested on 1 February. Four of his reporters were also arrested and charged under the State Secrets Act: Sithu Soe, Paing Thet Kyaw, Yazar Oo and Lu Maw Naing.
Tint San said they have been treated unfairly and authorities have purposefully made things difficult for them.
“We cannot meet with our lawyer. What I want is more media freedom,” he said.
Presidential spokesperson Ye Htut has rejected the allegations that the facility is a cover for a chemical weapons plant, and said that it manufactures ordinary defense materials.