A court in Myanmar has sentenced four reporters and the chief executive officer of a magazine to 10 years of hard labour in prison on a national security charge for investigative stories on a weapons factory.

All five men from the Yangon-based Unity Journal were sentenced on Thursday for violating the 1923 Burma State Secrets Act pertaining to trespassing in a prohibited area with prejudicial purpose, the Associated Press reported.

Kyaw Lin, the lawyer for Unity Journal chief executive Tin San, said that the verdict was "totally unfair", and suggested that it was not appropriate to use a law intended for the prosecution of spies.

"These people are not spies in this case. They were just reporting," he said, adding that the law says nothing about trespassing on army land, and that any infraction might have been more justly punished by a fine and two or three days in jail.

The law was enacted when Myanmar was a British colony called Burma.

The weekly magazine published stories in January alleging that the military had seized more than 1,200 hectares of farmland in Myanmar's central Magwe Region to construct a weapons factory.

New-found press freedoms

It reported allegations that the factory would produce chemical weapons and printed the denial of these allegations by authorities.

Myanmar has made sweeping reforms, which include freedom of the press, after emerging from a half a century of military rule in 2011. But media watchdogs say reporters still face intimidation and arrests, especially in rural areas, and that the situation appears to be worsening, even as official censorship has been lifted.

The authorities defended the arrests as a matter of national security. The magazine has since gone out of business.

After the arrests, Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut acknowledged that the factory belonged to the defence ministry, but told The Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based online news site, that claims it was in any way related to the production of chemical weapons were "totally baseless".

"The journal only quotes local people," Ye Htut said, defending the arrests of journalists following allegations that the government was starting to trample on new-found press freedoms.

Source: AP