The trial of five Unity Weekly employees continued on Monday in Pakokku, Magwe Division. The defendants are now preparing additional witnesses and expect a verdict within one month.
The five were arrested after the Unity Weekly journal published a front-page exposé of an alleged chemical weapons facility in Magwe’s Pauk Township, in central Burma. Four reporters and the publication’s CEO were apprehended shortly after running the story in late January, and have since remained in custody.
All are defending charges of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act, which outlaws approach, inspection or entry of prohibited state properties for any purpose contradicting the interest of the state. A guilty verdict could result in up to 14 years in jail.
Unity CEO and Chief Editor Tint San testified that he was present outside of the facility, a military-owned factory that the government insists is used to produce standard ordnance, but denies that he ever entered the premises. Tint San’s lawyer, Wah Win Maung, told DVB on Monday that his client was not there to report on the facility and had not violated the law by probing the property.
“Tint San admitted that he was outside of the facility but did not enter the premises, and he talked to locals,” he said, “about confiscation of farmlands in the area. But he was not there to cover news about the facility.”
The four detained reporters also disputed the charges against them, claiming that their editor should bear responsibility for the report. They said that Tint San instructed them to enter the premises, after which they submitted reporting and the editor wrote the controversial article, which was almost immediately pulled from shelves nationwide.
Tint San gave the order, said Theingi Tun, the wife of reporter Yazar Oo, promising that “he’ll take care of everything” if something were to go wrong.
“My husband said he’d rather stay [at home] but the editor insisted he go [to the site],” she said.
The Unity case has caused controversy on several fronts; it has become a frequently cited example of what some consider Burma’s “backslide” on media freedom, while also calling unwanted attention to the country’s lethargic efforts to ratify the UN Chemical Weapons Convention.
The government has denied that the facility in question is used for the manufacture of chemical weapons, but has not allowed access to the site and has kept the Unity staffers in detention since they made the allegations in late January.
Several other journalists have also faced intimidation for investigative reporting in Burma, particularly in Magwe. DVB video journalist Zaw Pe was recently handed a one-year sentence by the Magwe Township court, and several rounds of demonstrations against media suppression have met with heavy-handed responses from the government.