RANGOON — Police in Rangoon may charge more than 20 Burmese journalists who held an unauthorized prayer service on International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists in the commercial capital early this month.
“They went to Sule Pagoda and to [Maha] Bandoola Park, which we did not permit them to do. We are going to charge them under Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law,” said Police Col. Win Tin from the Kyauktada Township police office.
Police say the journalists were permitted to demonstrate only at a sports field in Tamwe Township. The accused will receive one to three months’ imprisonment if found guilty.
Article 19, a sister clause to the better-known and controversial Article 18 of the Peace Assembly Law, stipulates punishment for violating a separate provision in the legislation requiring protestors to remain within the area authorities have authorized.
The journalists counter that their presence in downtown Rangoon on Nov. 2, International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists, was not to demonstrate but rather to pray for journalists in Burma facing threats, oppression or violence due to their profession.
On Nov. 2, in collaboration with members of some civil society groups, prayer service participants called for an end to crimes against journalists, both in Burma and worldwide.
“Since every country is doing a lot of movements for press freedom on that day, we felt that we also needed to do something for Burmese journalists who are facing criminal charges, who are being killed and who are being oppressed,” said Shwe Hmone, one of the event organizers.
Win Tin the Kyauktada police colonel said Shwe Hmone would be charged under Article 19, as would “the party” involved in the prayer service, which included more than 20 journalists.
Participants decided to go to Sule Pagoda after complaining about the venue proposed by local authorities, as the location had no pagoda around which to conduct a prayer service, Shwe Hmone said.
“As Buddhists, we seek refuge through the Lord Buddha and pray for freedom in the country. Since the law is not on the side of people and is oppressing freedom of speech, there is nothing we can do but face it,” she said.
Media freedoms in Burma, which have deteriorated this year, were dealt their heaviest blow last month when the journalist Aung Kyaw Naing was shot dead while in military custody. More than 10 members of the media have been imprisoned this year and at least two publications currently have defamation cases against them pending.
The journalists involved in the prayer service, however, said that they had not yet received police or court notice of impending charges as of Friday afternoon.