RANGOON — About two dozen journalists who staged a silent demonstration in Burma’s former capital will be charged with violating the Peaceful Assembly Act, as will dozens of other journalists who were not participating in the demonstration but attempted to report on it, according to the police.
The protesters were demonstrating on Saturday against the recent harsh imprisonment of their fellow reporters in the country. An officer from a police station in Rangoon’s Kamayut Township, where the demonstration took place, confirmed on Monday that several dozen journalists would face charges because they did not receive permission from authorities to hold the demonstration.
“The chief of the station will charge them as a plaintiff. The number of journalists on the list is about 50,” the officer told The Irrawaddy.
That number has raised eyebrows among journalists who did not participate in the demonstration but were present to report on it.
“Given the number of people on the list, it seems the police have included other journalists who did not join the protest. There were many reporters like me out there on that day to cover it,” said a local journalist who declined to be named.
The police declined to comment on the decision to take legal action against journalists who did not participate in the demonstration, but said they were still reviewing their list before pressing charges.
The protest was unplanned. About two dozen journalists wearing T-shirts that read, “Stop Killing Press,” decided to stage the demonstration after they were prevented from covering a meeting at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) between President Thein Sein and local celebrities.
The journalists, including several from The Irrawaddy, had worn the T-shirts into the meeting to show their opposition to the sentencing last week of four reporters and the chief executive of Unity journal to 10 years in prison with hard labor. Authorities required the journalists in T-shirts to leave the president’s meeting because of their attire, so they gathered outside and waited silently. Some covered their mouths with black tape to suggest that freedom of expression has been curtailed.
The Unity journal reporters were convicted last week on Thursday in a lawsuit filed by the President’s Office after they published an article about an alleged chemical weapons factory in Magwe Division. They were found guilty of violating the State Secrets Act, and their sentence was criticized as excessive by human rights activists and press watchdogs.
Burma’s Interim Press Council has requested a meeting with Thein Sein to discuss the situation, according to council member Zaw Thet Htwe.
“If we don’t have that chance, the council will call an urgent meeting to review the role of the council. If we can’t do anything to protect press freedom and journalists’ rights, the role of the press council is questionable,” he told The Irrawaddy.
If the 50 or so journalists are convicted of violating the Peaceful Assembly Act, they will face a maximum of six months’ imprisonment, according to Robert San Aung, a lawyer who would defend them in court.
He said he believed the government was attempting to intimidate the media.
“They didn’t shout slogans. They held no placards. They just stood on the pavement like any other people. I see no point in taking action against them,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Journalists who joined the silent demonstration said they had not received any notification from the police as of Monday afternoon.
“No call, no letter from the police so far,” said Ei Mon Kyaw, an executive editor at Our Farmer weekly.
She said if the lawsuit proceeded, the case would make history in Burma because so many journalists have never before been charged in the same incident.
“If it happens, it would only make me believe more strongly in the importance of journalism,” she said.
Irrawaddy reporters May Sitt Paing and Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report.