Yangon, Myanmar - Days after a stern warning to the media by President Thein Sein, four journalists and the head of a local publication were sentenced to 10 years hard labour for disclosing state secrets.
The guilty verdicts, which were immediately decried by rights groups, come after months of increasing government pressure, which has led to seemingly arbitrary arrests, deportations, and the dispatching of "secret police" to investigate the financial status of local newspapers.
The sentencing on July 10 of journalists Lu Maw Naing, Sithu Soe, The Yazar Oo, and Aung Thura, of Yangon-based weekly journal Unity, along with its CEO Tint San, was handed down by a court in Magway Region's town of Pakokku in response to a January 25 article about an alleged chemical weapons factory in the area.
The five men have been in prison since early February when they were charged with publishing state secrets and trespassing under Article 3 of Burma Secret Act of 1923. Unity has since halted operations.
"It is a very hard sentence. The court claims that the journalists were spying and under the existing laws they shouldn't have taken this kind of action," Kyaw Lin, the lawyer representing Tint San, told Al Jazeera, adding that the laws allow for a punishment of no more than three years.
"This was a very wrongful action and a political decision. There are no laws that call for this kind of punishment," he said. "I will take this to the Supreme Court."
During an interview with Radio Free Asia in Washington, DC on Thursday, Myanmar President Thein Sein's spokesman, Ye Htut, defended the sentencing saying the courts acted within the parameters of the law.
"Under [Myanmar's] current government, no one has action taken against them for criticising the government, but if anyone - even me - does something that threatens national security, action will be taken against them," he said.
"If journalists know how to cover news within the boundary of the laws, they can avoid this kind of problem," he said, adding, "Even a country like the United States would respond in the same way in these matters."
The recent court decision has drawn the ire of rights organisations and journalists who believe the country to be backsliding on progress to press freedom since the quasi-civilian government took power in 2011.
"This outrageous verdict demonstrates how far and fast basic respect for freedom of the press is failing in Burma. With this judgement, the Burma military in particular is sending a signal to media and civil society that any sort of serious scrutiny of its actions will be met with a harsh response," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
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The journalists of Unity are not the only ones who have been imprisoned.
There is no rule of law for the press in Myanmar...
In December, Ma Khine, of locally based Eleven Media, spent nearly three months in jail on charges of trespassing, using abusive language, and defamation, while Yae Khe, a correspondent for Mizzima was charged under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Processions Act in April for organising a rally in support of press freedom in Bago Region.
Also in April, Zaw Pe, a video reporter for the Chiang Mai-based Democratic Voice of Burma, and his assistant were sentenced to a one year prison term for allegedly trespassing and obstructing a civil servant while filming inside an education department office for a report on the selection process for a Japanese scholarship programme.
Though they were later freed on July 4 after the sentence was reduced to three months by an appeals court, Zaw Pe said his term in jail represents a direct threat to press freedom as he believes the two should never have been sent to prison in the first place.
"There is no rule of law for the press in Myanmar and while I am angry about the situation I also have no faith in the government," he said, adding that he was only doing his job as a journalist.
"The situation is just as bad as it was before the new government took over three years ago."
Under 60 years of military rule, a wide array of topics were banned from publication, including those dealing with corruption, poverty, and natural disasters, while images of opposition leaders such as Aung San Suu Kyi were strictly forbidden. As a result of countless government crackdowns, dozens of journalists were sent to prison, with some facing sentences of more than 20 years.
With sweeping reforms that came with the new regime at the helm, the media landscape in Myanmar underwent a vast transformation, beginning with the release of hundreds of political prisoners in 2011.
With the first private media enterprises to print in Myanmar in 2012, the government then pledged to establish new laws that would create press freedom for the first time in 60 years and in March, the Media Bill and the Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill were passed.
The media laws are no good for the reason that they can be used against reporters.
With their passage, however, it appears that progress to press freedom may continue to falter, as the Media Bill, which outlines the rights and obligations of the media and print press, advocates self-censorship. The Printers and Publishers Regulation Bill, meanwhile, echoes the same sentiment by allowing the government to revoke publishing licenses for vague offences including "insulting religion".
Both experts and government officials admit that the new rules are far from perfect as factions within Myanmar's largely decentralised power structure use judicial weaknesses as a tool to oppress journalists.
"The media laws are no good for the reason that they can be used against reporters. We cannot defend journalists who are being charged with the older laws," said Myint Kyaw, general secretary of Myanmar Journalists Network and a member of Myanmar Press Council.
During an event in Yangon marking World Press Freedom Day, Myanmar's Information Minister Aung Kyi also said that Myanmar's media rules are filled with loopholes and put journalists in what he calls "not a good situation".
"These [charges against journalists] are happening because of a loophole in the media laws - the laws have been signed by the president but they still lack bylaws and regulations for implementation," he said. "We are working as fast as we can to adopt the bylaws and regulations."
But the government's intimidation tactics are not only limited to public statements. In the final week of June, the Ministry of Home Affairs' police unit, Special Branch, began sending plain-clothed officers to various newsrooms around Yangon and questioning editors and publishers.
"We are not sure of the motive, but one thing that is for sure is their use of intimidation," said Aung Zaw, founder and editor of the formerly exiled Irrawaddy Magazine, which has offices in Yangon and Chiang Mai, Thailand.
"They came to our office and invited some senior editors to come to the police station for a discussion on our news coverage and issues. Then they began asking how we make money as they believed newspapers to be losing profits," he said, adding officers insinuated the possibility that owners were using their newspaper to illegally launder money.
Zaw said that in addition, his magazine was likely being punished by the Ministry of Information following breaking reports in January over the killing of at least 40 Rohingya Muslims in Arakan (Rakhine) State.
"The AP and ourselves were both singled out by the police and we were vilified in the state-run newspaper for three weeks. It's a very dirty strategy," he said, adding that foreign staffers at Irrawaddy were denied re-entry visas in several instances.
"[The government] is really giving us a hard time."
Source: Al Jazeera