Journalist Could Face Charge for Attending Unlawful Prayer Service

By Nobel Zaw 14 May 2015

RANGOON — Journalist Shwe Hmone, a reporter for Thamaga News Journal, has been threatened with charges for her participation in a public prayer for detained media workers late last year.

Shwe Hmone, 33, said Rangoon’s Kyauktada Township Police sent a letter to the journal’s chief reporter on Tuesday announcing that she is under investigation for violating Article 19 of the Peaceful Assembly Law.

Article 19, a lesser-known sister clause to the controversial Article 18, stipulates punishment of three months in prison for violating a separate provision in the legislation requiring protestors to remain within the area police have designated for a protest.

“This is nonsense,” Shwe Hmone told The Irrawaddy on Thursday, claiming that the event in question was not a protest but a group prayer held at Sule Pagoda.

To mark International Day to End Impunity for Crimes Against Journalists on Nov. 2 of last year, about 150 people gathered at the pagoda to pray for the wellbeing of journalists who had been subjected to violence and imprisonment.

The event’s organizers requested permission from local authorities, but were only permitted to gather at a sports field in Tamwe Township.

“We didn’t protest,” Shwe Hmone said, “we just wanted to pray. We can’t really do that at the monument, so we requested that they let us do it near Sule Pagoda. But they were seriously against it.”

Kyauktada Police declined to comment on the case against Shwe Hmone, though in November last year the township’s Police Col. Win Tin told The Irrawaddy that about 20 people could face Article 19 charges for their participation in the event.

While Burma’s journalists have enjoyed some new freedoms in the years since the country began its transition from military to quasi-civilian rule in 2011, many have suggested that the government is backsliding.

Pre-publication censorship was abolished in late 2012, though lawsuits against journalists and government warnings about certain content have arguably had a chilling effect on the fourth estate.

At least 20 journalists were arrested in Burma since 2013, including one who was killed in the custody of the Burma Army. Twelve are currently serving prison sentences, among them five media workers sentenced to seven years with hard labor for violating a colonial-era state secrecy law.

A violent crackdown on student demonstrators in Letpadan, Pegu Division, earlier this year ended with more than 120 arrests, two of them journalists who were released after two weeks in jail without charge. During the crackdown, police were seen indiscriminately assaulting students, monks, bystanders and reporters at the scene.

Shwe Hmone said the pending charge against her indicates that the government could be targeting journalists as well as activists.

“I think it’s obvious that the government has a grudge against us,” she said. “Some journalists have been sentenced to many years already, which made 2014 the most troublesome year the media.”