RANGOON — A Rangoon court has accepted criminal charges against five journalists, editors and publishers of the Bi Mon Te Nay journal, but the charges were lighter than expected and one editor at the defunct weekly was acquitted, the defendants’ lawyer said. Authorities launched an investigation against the journal last month after it published a story that upset the government.
On Monday, Pabedan Township Court in Rangoon accepted the charge under the Penal Code’s Article 505 (b) against journalist Kyaw Zaw Hein, editors Win Tin and Thura Aung, and publishers Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing, according to their lawyer Robert San Aung.
The judge ordered the release of editor Ye Min Aung, he added.
Article 505 (b) is a broadly defined charge, punishing those who spread or make statements that can “alarm the public” or “whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state.” The charge was widely used to crush dissent under the former military regime.
In recent weeks, Pabedan police said Special Branch Police had charged the defendants with articles 5 (d) and 5 (j) of the 1950 Emergency Provisions Act, which set out lengthy prison sentences for affecting conduct of the public or undermining law and order.
Robert San Aung said these charges had been revoked and replaced with article 505 (b), adding that this meant a significant reduction in potential prison terms.
“Under the previous charges they could receive seven years’ imprisonment for each charge, but the new charge carries a maximum punishment of two years’ imprisonment,” he said, adding that, “The charge can also be closed with a fine payment.”
Robert San Aung said he believed the reduced the charges were the result of the Myanmar’s Interim Press Council meeting with President Thein Sein on Friday. The president promised to support the media sector, ensure journalists facing prosecution would receive “fair treatment” and that the council would be allowed to mediate any legal disputes involving journalists.
Su Thet Hnin, a friend of journalist Kyaw Zaw Hein said, “I talked to [him], he said the change to their charges is potentially a positive step.”
The next court appearance for the five defendants is scheduled for Aug 14.
Special Branch Police launched an investigation into Bi Mon Te Nay journal in early July and began arresting journalists, editors and publishers at the newspaper after it ran a front page story on a statement by Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), which mistakenly claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.
On 20 July, Burmese border authorities cooperated with Thai border authorities during the arrest of publishers Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing, and his wife Ei Ei San in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. The arrest and subsequent extradition of members of the media was considered unusual as the defendants were being sought by Burma for political reasons.
Ei Ei San was later released because of a lack of evidence.
The trial against Bi Mon Te Nay journalists is the latest in a number of legal cases by authorities against Burmese journalists, and appears to be part of wider effort by the government to reign in and intimidate local media, which had been enjoying a period of relative freedom after President Thein Sein lifted junta-era media restrictions in 2012.
Naung Naung, an activist at MDCF, appeared at Rangoon’s Kyauktada Township Court on Monday and the court accepted the charge under Article 505 (b) against him for spreading a statement claiming that Suu Kyi had formed an interim government, according Naung Naung’s wife Kyu Kyu.
The MDCF is a small but active rights group that has been protesting against the previous military government and what it sees as injustices under the current government.
The group’s leader, Htin Kyaw is also facing charges under Article 505 (b) in relation to the statements it released about Suu Kyi forming a government. He is already serving a one-year prison term for other activities.
Two other activists of the group were recently sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for distributing pamphlets that accused President Thein Sein’s government of abuse of power.