RANGOON — The Interim Myanmar Press Council said it has requested a meeting with President Thein Sein to discuss the growing threat to media freedom in Burma, while it has also sent letters to several Lower House committees asking lawmakers to look into the situation.
Thiha Saw, a council member, said the organization wanted to see the president soon in order to discuss Burma’s deteriorating media climate. “We have requested a meeting before the end of the month,” he said.
Thiha Saw said the council had contacted the Lower House Judicial Committee, the Sports, Culture and Public Relations Development Committee and the Rule of Law Committee. The latter committee is chaired by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
He said the council approached the committees as they can question the judiciary over the authorities’ recent actions against journalists. “We sent letters to those parliamentary committees that can summon MPs, judges and members of the judiciary, in order to [ask] help in solving the actions taken against media,” he said.
The council also plans to write a letter to Union Parliament Speaker Shwe Mann asking his help with arranging a meeting with the president, Thiha Saw added.
Last week, the CEO and four journalists from the Unity Journal were sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment with hard labor on charges of trespassing and violating the colonial-era State Secrets Act, after they wrote a report alleging that the Burma Army was building a chemical weapons plant in Magwe Division’s Pakkoku Township.
The harsh sentences have drawn local and international condemnation and media freedom advocates 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 press council has repeatedly said that authorities have ignored the council during recent cases against journalists, despite the fact that the Press Law stipulates that any legal dispute involving a journalist should be mediated by the council first.
On Saturday, dozens of journalists covering Thein Sein’s visit to the Myanmar Peace Center in Rangoon wore t-shirts protesting against the sentence and were then barred from entering the center.
When they held a spontaneous silent gathering outside the center, police decided to charge about 50 reporters for holding an unauthorized protest, which can carry up to 3 months imprisonment under the Peaceful Assembly Act. Officers said they are currently investigating the case and identifying reporters.
The Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners-Burma (AAPP) said in a statement Wednesday that the case against the Unity Journal is in direct contravention of Thein Sein’s promises to allow for greater political and media freedoms.
“We have to question why political charges … are being used against the media when the president has made public promises in his radio speeches that they will no longer arrest people on political charges like they did before,” Tate Naing of AAPP told The Irrawaddy.
“Ten years’ imprisonment is too much and it’s not fair on journalists,” he said, adding that the AAPP—which has long supported Burma’s political prisoners—had not decided whether to classify the imprisoned Unity journalists as prisoners of conscience.
Amnesty International said in a statement on Friday that it considered the five men political prisoners.
In recent months, Burmese authorities have been stepping up harassment of journalists. In June, three editors from Bi-Mon Tae Nay Journal were charged with defamation after publishing a front page story on a statement by the Myanmar Democracy Continuous Force that falsely claimed that Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.
In recent weeks, officers of the Special Branch Police have been making visits to private newspapers, supposedly to look into the financial records of the publications. Media representatives have said the actions serve to intimidate the media organizations, which have only been able to publish in relative freedom in Burma after junta-era draconian restrictions were gradually lifted in 2012.