Defence lawyers for the executive and reporters of the now-shuttered Unity Weekly news journal requested during their final arguments in court on Monday that their clients be charged under the new Media Law instead of being accused of leaking state secrets.
Unity Weekly’s reporters – Lu Maw Naing, Sithu Soe, Aung Thura and Yazar Oo — were arrested on 30 and 31 January, along with the news journal’s CEO Tint Hsan, for publishing a report about a government facility being constructed in Magwe’s Pauk Township by the Burmese military which they alleged was to be a chemical weapons factory. Charged under Article 3 of the Official Secrets Act, the five were accused of revealing state secrets for their report.
Wah Win Maung, the defence lawyer for the Unity employees, said that he argued in court on Monday that the five should be charged under the Media Law instead, which would see them fined instead of imprisoned if they were found guilty.
“We argued that the facility in question was not officially designated for the Unity Weekly to be liable for prosecution under the Article 3(1)a of the Official Secrets law, and that they were only reporting accounts from local villagers in their capacity as a media publication,” Wah Win Maung said. “We stated that they should instead be charged with Article 25 of the Media Law.”
Article 25 of the Media Law stipulates that news organisations that violate media rules and ethics may face legal action.
However, Zaw Thet Htwe, member of the Interim Press Council, said that while the Media Law has been passed and signed by President Thein Sein and the Union parliament, it has not come into effect as the legislative body has yet to approve any specific clauses or regulations within the Law. These were recently drafted by the Interim Press Council and are currently awaiting approval from the Ministry of Information before being sent to the parliament for discussion.
A day before the final hearing of the Unity Weekly trial, operations at the news journal ceased due to financial problems. Kalyar, an administrative team member, said that the publication was suffering losses because of the trial’s legal expenses.
“We told our staff members that we are going out of operation for financial reasons. The trial has been wearing us thin so we had to make this decision,” Kalyar said.