Myanmar’s Supreme Court Wednesday rejected an appeal by four journalists and the CEO of the defunct Unity journal, who are serving a seven year sentence at hard labor for a July report alleging that an Army facility was being used to manufacture chemical weapons.
The publication was ordered closed after the report, which was deemed to be a violation of the Official Secrets Act.
The decision against the journalists is the latest in a growing string of harsh actions against the press that are raising concerns that high hopes for Myanmar’s democracy, raised with the freeing of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and a decision to allow elections, are being dashed.
The Committee to Protect Journalists, in an open leter to US President Barack Obama, expressed what was called its “deep concern about the recent killing, jailing, and harassment of journalists in Burma” and urged the president toi “impress upon Burmese President Thein Sein that future US engagement will be predicated on a renewed and genuine commitment to press freedom.”
That hasn’t happened. Robert San Aung, the lawyer for the four, said Lu Maw Naing, 28, Sithu Soe, 22, The Yazar Oo, 28, and Aung Thura, 25, had appealed for a full acquittal on Oct. 4, but were turned down, as was Tint San, 52, who is represented by a different lawyer, who had appealed to have his sentence reduced to five years in prison.
“The court dismissed the appeal of the journalists yesterday at 3 pm, and also dismissed the appeal of the CEO,” he told reporters. Aung said he would now file a last appellate option for a defendant with the Supreme Court—on behalf of the four journalists.
“We will try again for the journalists to get full acquittal, but if the special leave appeal is rejected then there are no more [legal] options,” he said.
Aung said the Supreme Court had been wrong to reject the appeal, adding that the courts should not have sentenced them and accepted charges that his clients had violated the colonial-era State Secrets Act. “This is an issue related to human rights because journalists have the right to report and write freely—they are not guilty,” he said.
On July 10, a Pakokku Township Court sentenced the journalists and the CEO to 10 years imprisonment with hard labor under State Secrets Act for reporting allegations that a Burma Army facility in Magwe Division was being used to manufacture chemical weapons.
The President’s Office initiated the case against the journalists after the Unity journal published a front-page story about the facility. On Oct. 2, the Magwe Divisional Court did reduce the sentence of the five men from 10 to 7 years’ imprisonment with hard labor following an appeal by the defendants.
The harsh sentencing of the Unity journalists has outraged the Burmese media and rights activists, and has given rise to concerns over a worsening of media freedom under the Thein Sein government,.
With reporting from The Irrawaddy, with which Asia Sentinel has a copy-sharing agreement.