Public demonstrations and collective anger arose mid-July after the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar, also known as Burma, handed down 10-year jail sentences to five journalists accused of violating state secrets.
The four reporters and chief executive of current affairs at magazine Unity Weekly published stories in January alleging that the government had grabbed large swaths of land to construct a chemical weapons factory.
The government convicted the journalists on the grounds of a 1923 State Secrets Law, a law from the British colonial days. United Weekly has since been shut down.
A January 25 story published in Unity Weekly referenced local villagers that stated that Chinese technicians frequently appeared at a facility that was creating chemical weapons.
The Committee to Protect Journalists released a statement July 10 expressing outrage at the conviction and the sentence.
“The conviction should shatter any illusions that President Thein Sein’s government grasps the role of a free press in a democracy,” CPJ Asia Program Coordinator Bob Dietz said.
Dietz said the international community should act in response to the verdict to “not only get this decision reversed, but to impress upon the government that its anti-media stance will jeopardize future economic assistance.”
To many observers, the move on behalf of the government to implement strict punishments to the journalists is a disparaging albeit curious decision. In recent years, the Myanmar government promised to enact substantial reforms to promote freedom of the press within the country.
President Thein Sein has enacted a number of attempted reforms since taking the oath of office in 2011. These include the release of journalists jailed under the previous military regime, the ending of pre-publication censorship of local press and the lifting of some Internet restrictions.
Yet some, including the Committee to Protect Journalists, have expressed doubts as to whether Thein Sein’s reforms are legitimate and long-lasting, especially in the face of last week’s conviction. Currently, Myanmar is ranked 145 out of a possible 180 in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index, an aggregate of the press freedoms of 180 different countries.
Barring domestic protests and calls for reform, the coming weeks and months will determine whether international reaction and pressure will play a role in reshaping the government’s policies.
– Ethan Safran
Sources: The New York Times, CNN, CPJ 1, CPJ 2