Journalists critical of the authorities in Myanmar pay dearly for their stories. Five journalists at the Unity newspaper paid with their freedom. On World Press Freedom Day we remind the government of their promises to foster a free press and demand freedom for the ‘Unity Five’.
“What I want is more media freedom.” These are the words of Tint San, Chief Executive Officer at the Unity newspaper in Myanmar during his trial. His crime? Doing his job.
In January 2014, weekly newspaper Unity published an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in Magwe Region, central Myanmar. Reporting that the factory was built in 2009 on land that was confiscated from farmers.
The government was quick to deny the story and responded by seizing copies of the newspaper. But worse was to come. Within days, Tint San and four journalists Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw and Sithu Soe, were arrested. They were accused of disclosing state secrets, trespassing and taking photos of a restricted area. They are all now serving seven years in Pakkoku prison in central Myanmar. The Unity newspaper has since closed, casting a lingering shadow over media workers in Myanmar, who fear arrest and imprisonment simply for undertaking their work.
Journalism is not a crime
What happened to the ‘Unity Five’ is not unusual – we know that at least 7 other media workers are in prison today because of their reporting.
One journalist told me:
“The government still has limits. Compared to the previous regime we can get away with many more things, but if you go beyond their limits there will be action. It’s hard always to know, but if you expose anything critical of the military or military affairs you can be jailed, intimidated. They can use the law against you.”
Backtracking on press freedom
When President Thein Sein became President in 2011, hopes were high for press freedom. He began to reform the media and end media censorship – journalists no longer had to submit articles to state censors before publication. In 2013, he publicly committed to release all prisoners of conscience – people who are in prison simply because of who they are or what they believe.
Worryingly, the recent arrests suggest that the President has had a change of heart, and he is now he is going back on his word. Journalists, peaceful political activists, human rights defenders and people who appear to be criticizing the government are being arrested.
As Myanmar approaches elections at the end of this year, there hasn’t been a better time to tell the government that the world will not tolerate oppression against journalists and the media.
Ye Htut is the President’s spokesperson and Minister of Information. On World Press Freedom Day join us as we flood his Facebook page with messages demanding #FreeUnity5