RANGOON — Minister of Information Ye Htut told media representatives on Tuesday that he would discuss the recent imprisonment of several local journalists with President Thein Sein and ask if he could intervene in the case.
“The president cannot interfere in the judiciary sector, but he does have the authority to consider the cases after verdicts are given at the courts,” state media quoted the minister as saying in response to a question about the sentencing last of five staffers of the Bi Mon Te Nay journal.
Ye Htut made the remarks during a meeting with the Myanmar Journalist Network, a Rangoon-based journalists’ support group. He said he would relay the views of the journalists about the criminal convictions of their colleagues to the president.
Shwe Hmon, a member of the Myanmar Journalist Network, said Ye Htut had not gone into detail about how the president might intervene. She said, “We hope for a good result, but we need to wait and see,” adding that the reporters had also raised the case of the imprisonment of staffers of the Unity journal.
On Oct. 16, Rangoon’s Pabedan Township Court sentenced five members of the defunct Bi Mon Te Nay journal to two years in prison on incitement charges. The journal had published a front page story on a statement by activist group, which mistakenly claimed that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi had formed an interim government.
The sentencing of the journalists and owners is the latest in a number of criminal cases by authorities against local journalists in recent months, and signals a marked decline in media freedom in Burma.
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.
Kyaw Win, lawyer of the men from Bi Mon Te Nay journal, told The Irrawaddy that the president had the constitutional power to grant a pardon to convicted prisoners, while the Penal Code also includes an article that lets the president suspend a convict’s punishment.
He said, however, that his efforts to free the men would focus on getting an acquittal during an appeal with a Rangoon district court or the Supreme Court.
Bi Mon Te Nay reporter Kyaw Zaw Hein, editors Win Tin and Thura Aung, and journal owners Yin Min Htun and Kyaw Min Khaing are being held in Rangoon’s Insein Prison.
Reporters without Borders, a France-based media freedom advocate group, in a statement released over the weekend, condemned the imprisonment of Bi Mon Te Nay staffers.
“This sentence is out of all proportion and constitutes a serious violation of media freedom,” said Benjamin Ismaïl, the head of the Reporters without Borders Asia desk.