RANGOON — Pabedan Township Court in Rangoon sentenced three journalists and the two owners of the defunct Bi Mon Te Nay journal to two years in prison on Thursday after the journal published a story that upset the Burmese government.
The court sentenced reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, editors Win Tin and Thura Aung, and owners Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing under the Penal Code’s Article 505(b).
This broadly defined charge punishes those who spread or make statements that can “alarm the public” or “whereby any person may be induced to commit an offence against the state.” The charge was widely used to crush dissent under the former military regime.
The court handed out the maximum punishment under Article 505(b) of two years’ imprisonment.
After the sentence, the convicted men were led passed reporters outside court and Kyaw Zaw Hein shouted, “This is totally unfair and if the country wants to change into a democracy, the country needs press freedom.”
Special Branch Police launched an investigation into Bi Mon Te Nay journal in early July and arrested the journalists and owners at the newspaper after it ran a front page story on a statement by activist group the Movement for Democracy Current Force (MDCF), which mistakenly claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.
The journal was shut down shortly after the men were arrested.
Lawyers of the convicted men said that the judge in the case had failed to consider the new Press Law.
The law was approved in March and states that any dispute arising from a news article should first be mediated by the Myanmar Press Council, before being referred to the court. The law carries no criminal punishment but carries fines in the case of wrongdoing by journalists during their work.
Lawyer Kyaw Win said, “I constantly referred the court to the Press Law, but the judge didn’t analyze one word of Press Law.”
He said the defendants would file for appeal with a district court and later the Supreme Court, adding, “The Supreme Court can analyze [the case] more broadly and change the charges. It can probably review the case under the Press Law.”
Thiha Saw, a member of the Interim Myanmar Press Council, said authorities had declined to bring the case against the Bi Mon Te Nay journal to the council for mediation because the additional rules and regulations for the Press Law had not yet been approved by President Thein Sein yet.
“The law is not complete… That is why the judge doesn’t use the Press Law and accepted charges under the Penal Code,” he said, adding that the rules and regulations of the press law were expected to be passed “within months.”
Family members of the convicted men said the sentence had been too harsh.
“It is unfair, and they decided to give them the highest punishment instead of judging the case under the Press Law,” Khin Aung, father of Kyaw Zaw Hein, told The Irrawaddy
“It is very unfair,” said Myint Oo, the brother-in-law of Yin Min Htun. “The decision means that the justice system signals to the media not to criticize the government about anything.”
The sentencing of the Bi Mon Te Nay journalists and owners is the latest in a number of criminal cases by authorities against Burmese journalists, and appears to be part of wider effort by the government to reign in and intimidate local media, which had been enjoying a period of relative freedom after President Thein Sein lifted junta-era media restrictions in 2012.
In July, a court sentenced four journalists and a CEO of the Unity journal to 10 years in prison under the State Secrets Act for reporting on a secretive military installation. The sentence was recently reduced to 7 years.
Pho Thauk Kya, a veteran local journalist, said the sentence had been unnecessarily harsh and does not fit with the democratic reforms that the Thein Sein has pledged to implement.
“Journalists who are doing their work… do not deserve such unfair punishment,” he said. “Such a punishment does not suit a government that is moving towards a democratic system.”
He said, however, that he believed that the Thein Sein’s government was becoming more accepting of Burma’s independent media, but that low level authorities were still sticking to their junta-era repressive ways.
A number of local journalists assembled outside the Pabedan Court on Thursday to hold a demonstration to express their support for the convicted men. Some of them carried banners saying “Stop Killing Press.”
Demonstrator and journalist Shwe Hmone said, “The two years prison sentence is too much. I think they gave them the maximum prison term because they are journalists.”