Four journalists and their CEO have gone on trial for leaking state secrets after they reported on an alleged defence factory in Myanmar linked to China.
The case came, paradoxically, as the Southeast Asian country’s military-backed government enacted its first media law, designed to ensure freedom of the press, after nearly five decades of censorship and harsh restrictions under military rule.
The first hearing in the trial of the five on criminal charges of leaking state secrets concluded on Tuesday in rural Myanmar.
The charges relate to two reports in the Yangon-based Unity Journal. The reports identified an alleged chemical weapons factory near Pakkoku, in central Myanmar’s Magway Division. The reports said the facility was run with the assistance of China, Yangon’s the country’s largest supplier of military equipment. The journalists already pleaded not guilty at the Pakkoku District Court on Monday.
Watch: Myanmar military tests press freedom
Robert Saw Maung, the lawyer for one of the defendants, told The South China Morning Post that he expected the trial to take at least six months. He said a conviction of the five journalists was inevitable. A conviction could lead to 14 years in prison.
“The detention and trial of the Unity journalists is the clearest indication yet that military authorities are chafing under the more open reporting environment,” said Shawn Crispin, Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The conviction and sentencing to prison of the reporters would be the nail in the coffin of Myanmar’s supposed media reform drive.”
Lu Mu Naing, Saw Maung’s 28-year-old client, had been a reporter for only two weeks when he was arrested while reporting in Pakkoku. The Yangon-based newspaper Unity Journal had assigned the former elementary school teacher to follow up on rumours of a chemical plant in the remote town. The articles built on interviews of employees of the plant.
In the two reports, the newspaper alleged a secret facility built in 2009 in tunnels near Pakkoku stretching over 3,000 hectares of land was used to make chemical weapons. The reports claimed Chinese workers were seen at the site. Lei Zhen of the Chinese embassy in Yangon said he had no information on the matter.
The Myanmar government has consistently denied having a chemical-weapons programme and said the reports were untrue.
Ethnic armed groups have alleged in the past that they were targeted with “toxic gas” by Myanmar’s armed forces. The country has signed but not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty which would bar it from developing such weapons.
Lei Zhen, a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Yangon, said he had no information on the matter.
The Unity Journal reporters are the first journalists to stand trial on charges of violating the Official Secrets Act since the government stopped to require all newspaper articles to be approved by censors before publication in 2012. Last April, the government allowed newspapers to publish daily editions and Unity Journal was one of dozens of newspapers competing for readers on Yangon newsstands. The newspaper has a weekly circulation of 15,000 copies, according to a former staffer.
Lu Mu Naing was the first of the reporters to be arrested, on February 1. His newspaper’s CEO and the other reporters were apprehended later in Yangon. The trial was moved to rural Pakkoku to prevent unrest in the Yangon, said lawyer Saw Maung. A pre-trial hearing was held earlier this month.
Senior politicians from the government and the opposition have failed to speak out in support of the Unity Journal reporters facing harsh sentences.
In an interview with Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent media organisation based in Yangon, Ye Htut, an adviser to President Thein Sein, and former senior officer of the armed forces, compared the case with that of US whistle-blower Edward Snowden.
“I think even the US government would respond with the same action, concerning national security,” he said. “We will guarantee they get a fair trial.”
Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the leading opposition party National League for Democracy, told an audience of journalists and media executives in Yangon last week that they should “make sure what you write is not only truthful, but of benefit to our people, to our country.”
Speaking in general terms, she said that there were too many unsubstantiated reports in the country’s press. “There is a lot of gossip writing and there is a lot of writing that hurts people and doesn’t do anybody good at all,” she said. “We have a group of young journalists today, very enthusiastic, very committed, but actually without sufficient training,” said the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who spent a total of 15 years under house arrest.
On March 4, Myanmar’s parliament passed two new laws regulating the media, raising concerns over attempts of the quasi-civilian government to curtail the booming press in the country of about 60 million people.
Under the new law, the government can ban publications that could jeopardise national security, incite unrest or undermine ethnic unity.
Lawyer Saw Maung, himself a six-time political prisoner, said he was worried defending the journalist could himself get into trouble. “The government side watch me very closely,” he said, speaking to the Post in his office on the outskirts of Yangon before the 59-year old boarded the 10-hour bus to the Pakkoku. “If I make one mistake, they will arrest me.”
The lawyer, who currently handles seven political cases, the Unity Journal trial is about the military wanting to send a signal to the media that critical reports could still not be tolerated as the country is undergoing political change.
“If the media are free, they will be responsible,” he said, court room. “As long as [journalists] are not free, they have no duty to be responsible,” he said.
The next hearing is scheduled for coming March 31.