The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and the World Editors Forum have denounced the sentencing of four journalists and the CEO of Myanmar’s Unity Journal to ten years’ imprisonment with hard labour for a story that detailed allegations of a secret chemical weapons factory.
“The arrest of media professionals for simply doing their job can never be justified, while punishing reporting into an issue of such clear public interest is a devastating blow to your country’s democratic aspirations,” the global organisations said in a letter to Myanmar President, Thein Sein.
Yangon-based Unity Journal’s 25th January 2014 cover story detailed allegations of a secret chemical weapons factory located in Pauk Township, Magwe Division, in Myanmar’s central region. The report claims Chinese technicians were frequently seen at the facility and that its workers told reporters they were producing chemical weapons. Senior Myanmar military figures were also said to have frequently visited the facility.
The five men were originally detained between the 31st January and 1st February and initially held in an undisclosed location. According to reports from the trial, a Pakokku district judge ruled that the CEO, Tint San, along with journalists Lu Maw Naing (author of the report), Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw and Sithu Soe were found guilty of “violating the safety and interests of the state” and of “damaging its international reputation.”
Unity Journal’s coverage alleged that the government had spent millions of Kyat in public money to build the factory – said to be Myanmar’s largest chemical weapons establishment – despite significant international pressure to reduce military spending. The story also detailed accounts from local farmers who claimed to have had land seized for the building of the facility.
The five defendants were charged retroactively under section 25 (a) of the Media Law, enacted in 14 March 2014, almost two months after the publication of the original story. The Minister for Home Affairs reportedly also gave permission for the five to be charged under Section 3 (1) (a)/9 of the Official Secrets Act.
In its letter to President Sein, WAN-IFRA raised international concerns over a perceived political element to the verdict as evidence of further backsliding in press freedoms over recent months. “We are deeply concerned over allegations of political involvement in the trial as well as the chilling effect such a severe sentence transmits to the wider journalistic community in Myanmar – with an increase in self-censorship leading to a reluctance to cover stories of vital public interest the likely outcome.”
The sentencing of the five journalists follows the imprisonment of Eleven Media Group reporter Ma Khine in December 2013, as well as reports of increasing interference by the security services in the independence of private news outlets.
“The decision to curtail the freedom of the press by condemning journalists to lengthy prison sentences is a potent reminder that Myanmar is failing to deliver on its commitment to a genuinely free press and wider promises of greater respect for human rights,” WAN-IFRA’s letter concluded.
Nazir Siyal a Journalist adds: that Faizullah Khan, Karachi based reporter of a private tv channel, ARY was convicted by a local court in Jalalabad, Afghanistan for four years, on charges of spying, sources in ARY confirmed. The sentence was announced, last week.
Faizullah, went to Afghanistan as part of his professional work to do a story on Taliban and North Waziristan, few months back. Initially, there were reports that he was missing and could have been kidnapped. Later, it was communicated to the Pakistani authorities by Kabul, that they had arrested him as he entered into Afghanistan without proper document.
However, during his detention period he was allowed to talk to his family and close friends, which brought sign of relief among the family members. Efforts were made by the ARY, through Pakistani embassy for his early release prior to the formal charges, but the Kabul authorities refused to release him.
A legal assistance was also provided but he was not freed and was formally charged for spying and now convicted.
In view of the uncertain political situation after the Afghan elections, his early release becomes more difficult.
Media organizations like PFUJ and International journalist bodies must use their influence on Government of Pakistan and Afghanistan, for his early release, if possible before Eid, if nothing else on humanitarian ground. He is a well established journalist and has no political or any other affiliations.
I hope all journalist bodies will take up this issue and registered their protest in the strongest possible way to get his early release.