Today’s news that journalists from Unity Journal have been sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labor on charges related to a report alleging the existence of a government chemical weapons factory is a sad reminder that press freedom in Burma is still far from assured.
The sentence, handed down by a court in Pakokku Township, will almost certainly have a chilling effect on efforts by Burmese journalists to investigate the often opaque activities of the military or any other issue the government deems too sensitive.
Just a few days ago, President Thein Sein signaled that the media—only recently freed from the shackles of censorship—would be expected to confine itself to coverage that doesn’t disturb “national security.”
In a speech broadcast on state radio Monday night, the president claimed that “we have now become a nation with one of the highest levels of press freedom in Southeast Asia,” but warned in the wake of recent violence in Mandalay, Burma’s second-largest city, that this freedom should not be taken for granted.
“[If] media freedom threatens national security instead of helping the nation, I want to warn all that we will take effective action under existing laws,” the state-run Mirror newspaper quoted him as saying.
These are tough words from a president hailed by many as a reformist. According to lawyers who defended the Unity journalists, the order to arrest and detain the journalists came directly from the President’s Office.
They were charged with violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act after publishing a story headlined, “A secret chemical weapons factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township.” The government dismissed the report as “baseless,” but has never directly addressed its claims or invited the press to tour the site, despite insisting that it has nothing to hide.
What is worrying is that the government is now beginning to exercise its draconian restrictions on media though it has lifted censorship two years ago, winning praise from the international community.
A few weeks ago, Special Branch officers visited offices of several publications (including The Irrawaddy’s branch office in Rangoon) and invited senior editors. This week, police also interrogated three editors at Bi Mon Te Nay journal after it published a report that suggested Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic democratic forces are planning to form an interim government. They have since been charged under the Emergency Act.
Meanwhile, we have learned from the President’s Office that Facebook has agreed to collaborate with the government to monitor activities of its users due to widespread hate speech on the social media network. The irony is that government agencies, including state-run newspapers and websites, and close associates of government figures, including some extremist monks operating under different names, continue to use all resources at their disposal to inflame anti-Muslim sentiment.
Clearly, real press freedom remains a distant dream for Burma, where the government still gets to decide what is fit to print, and who has the right to inform (or misinform) the public.