RANGOON — Journalists in Rangoon wearing t-shirts to protest the jailing of four reporters and the CEO of the Unity journal were refused entry to an event involving President Thein Sein, sparking protests and a boycott of the meeting by other media.
About two dozen journalists trying to cover an event at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC) wore t-shirts on which were printed the words “Stop Killing Press.” They were barred from the event—in which the president was meeting with local celebrities—and proceeded to hold a silent demonstration, taping over their mouths to imply freedom of expression is being curtailed in Burma.
The demonstrating reporters said they wore the t-shirts to send a message of protest to Thein Sein over the sentences of 10 years with hard labor that were passed down to five people in Pakokku, Magwe Division, on Thursday. The conviction of the four journalists and the CEO of the Unity journal followed a lawsuit filed by the President’s Office accusing them of publishing state secrets and trespassing in relation to an article in January that said a military facility in Magwe was being used to produce chemical weapons.
The sentences have been denounced as harsh, and campaigners have pointed out that they are contradictory to the recently passed Press Law, which rules out prison sentences for journalists found to have broken the law in their work.
“The president should not misunderstand us,” said Shwe Hmon, one of the protesting journalists. “If the media is blacked out, the whole country will suffer. No one will benefit from it.”
She said reporters wearing the protest t-shirts were prevented by police from even entering the street on which the MPC is located. As a result, other journalists boycotted the event, during which the president met with movie stars, musicians and other people from the dramatic arts.
“Today we are showing our solidarity and that we all are fighting for media freedom in Burma,” said one photojournalist who joined the boycott.
Maung Maung Oo, the police security chief who barred the journalists, told The Irrawaddy that the reporters were turned away not because of the protest t-shirts but because they were not dressed “properly to cover the presidential event.”
“You shouldn’t cover an event where the head of the state is present wearing a t-shirt,” he said.
Myint Thien, one of the local journalists wearing the t-shirt, countered that they had not been informed of an official dress code for the event.
With only government-affiliated media inside the MPC’s meeting hall, other journalists stood in silence at the entrance to the building.
“Even murderers rarely get 10 years in prison in this country, but journalists do,” said Myint Thein, a local reporter. “I wonder if the government is targeting us for what we report.”
On Friday morning, dozens of journalists gathered at the prayer hall of the bronze sitting Buddha near the eastern stairway of Rangoon’s Shwedagon Pagoda to pray and release birds for the Unity journalists.
Also on Friday, the US-based group Freedom House issued a statement to condemning the sentences.
“Myanmar’s sentencing five journalists to 10 years imprisonment for doing their job is a huge blow for press freedom in Myanmar and reverses signs of positive change,” David J. Kramer, president of Freedom House, said in the statement.