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Myanmar: Immediately and Unconditionally Release Imprisoned Media Workers

By Amnesty International  •  July 10, 2015

One year after five media workers from the Unity newspaper were given long jail sentences and five media workers from the Bi-Midday Sun newspaper were detained – later sentenced and jailed – solely for their peaceful journalistic activities, Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them and all other prisoners of conscience in the country.

The continuing imprisonment of these 10 media workers – and the jailing of scores of other prisoners of conscience in the past year – is a clear indication that the Myanmar authorities are intensifying restrictions on freedom of expression ahead of the general election scheduled for 8 November 2015.

One year ago today, five media workers from the Unity newspaper – Lu Maw Naing, Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, Sithu Soe and Tint San – were each sentenced to 10 years in prison with hard labour after Unity published an article about an alleged secret chemical weapons factory in Pakkoku, Magwe Region. They had been arrested in January and February 2014, and accused of disclosing state secrets, trespassing and taking photos of a restricted area of the factory. They were subsequently charged under the Official Secrets Act – a draconian law which grants the state sweeping powers to restrict the right to freedom of expression. Although their sentences were reduced on appeal to seven years’ imprisonment, their most recent appeal to Myanmar’s Supreme Court was rejected, leaving them with no other legal avenues to challenge their conviction. Today, the five men are detained in Pakkoku prison, where they have already spent almost a year and a half behind bars.

Unfortunately their case is not isolated. This week also marks one year since, Kyaw Zaw Hein, Win Tin, Thura Aung, Yin Min Htun, and Kyaw Min Khaing, all media workers from the Bi-Midday Sun newspaper, were detained. They were arrested between 7 and 16 July 2014 after the paper had published claims that opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and ethnic leaders had been elected as an interim government. Originally detained under the Emergency Provisions Act, they were later found guilty on 16 October 2014 of “inciting the public to commit acts against the state or public tranquillity” under Section 505(b) of Myanmar’s Penal Code. They were each sentenced to two years’ imprisonment – the maximum penalty for the charge.

The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. While international human rights law and standards permit certain restrictions to the right to freedom of expression, these restrictions must be clearly defined and limited in scope: they must be provided by law; be limited to certain specified purposes such as national security, public order or respect of the rights or reputation of others, and be necessary and proportionate to the achievement of one of those permissible purposes. The charges prosecution and jailing of the Unity and Bi-Midday Sun media workers do not meet these narrow criteria for restricting the right to freedom expression, and Amnesty International considers all 10 men to be prisoners of conscience.

Amnesty International calls on the Myanmar authorities to review and amend all laws which violate the right to freedom of expression and to bring them in to line with international human rights law and standards. These include the Official Secrets Act, the Media Law, and Articles 499, 500 and 505(b) of the Penal Code.

The imprisonment of the Unity and Bi-Midday Sun media workers takes place in a broader context in which – as documented in an Amnesty International briefing published last month – journalists and media workers continue to face intimidation, harassment and the threat of criminalization, leading to wide-spread self-censorship. Indeed, cases like that of the Unity and Bi-Midday Sun media workers prove a chilling deterrent, and are often cited as examples of the risks journalists in Myanmar still face.

Ahead of national elections slated for early November, an independent media that can provide the public with information and analysis and serve as a platform for open discussion will be more important than ever. The Myanmar authorities must ensure that journalists and other media workers are able to carry out peaceful journalistic activities without fear of intimidation, harassment or retribution.

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