Subject: Calling For the Government of Myanmar to Ensure the Protection of Freedom of Press and Opinion, Stop Criminalization against five journalists of the Unity Journal
To: Embassy of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar
109, Jl. Haji Agus Salim, Menteng, Jakarta Pusat
Phone : (+62 21) 315 8908, 315 9095
Fax : (+62 21) 316 0079
Dear H.E U Nyan Lynn (Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary),
On behalf of the Commission of the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS) – a human rights organization in Indonesia – we condemn the sentencing of four journalists and a news editor to ten years imprisonment; each under the Burma Official Secrets Act 1923 law, we have been informed that the Court Decision is overturned and that they be released.
We strongly believe, the case is clearly intended to threaten the media in Myanmar, and have a chilling effect on public debate. As a member of the United Nations, the Government of Myanmar is responsible to protect the right to freedom of press and opinion, and to stop criminalization against journalists. These rights are clearly declared in The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”
Furthermore, in the context of the role of the Government of Myanmar in the Association of South-East Asia Nations (ASEAN), as a chairman, who is obliged under Article 23 of the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration [ADHR]; to assure its people has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information, whether orally, in writing or through any other medium of that person’s choice.
The case seems profoundly obvious yet necessary to add that the Burma Official Secrets Act 1923 is not up to date anymore and that it ought to be revoked or significantly amended to be made consistent with Myanmar’s new era of political and social change, and not to enable people who would prefer that the country remain stuck in the past to use it as a weapon against persons legitimately exercising the freedom of expression.
According to the information that we have received, after the Unity Journal on 25 January 2014 published an article alleging that a military facility in Pauk Township of Magway Region was being used for the making of chemical weapons, the officer responsible for the factory, Lt-Col. Kyaw Kyaw Oo brought a criminal case against the journal director and reporters for allegedly breaching state secrets, taking photographs of the facility without permission, and publishing the article without first obtaining approval.
However, the criminalization against five journalists falls within the violation of international human rights laws and ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. Briefly, these problems can be described as follow:
According to the Burma Official Secrets Act 1923, the police need to investigate first by order of the Minister of Home Affairs. After investigation, if detention is necessary the police need permission from a concerned court to arrest with warrant. However, the journalists had been arrested during the period when the army officer made a complaint against them, which is opposed to the provisions of the law. The Minister of Home Affairs gave an order to prosecute under sections 3 and 5 of the Burma Official Secrets Act (Letter No.PaHtaYa/2-6/Oo) only some 14 days after the men had already been arrested.
According to the Burma Official Secrets Act Section 2(8) “any place belonging to or used for the purpose of the State which is for the time being declared by the President of the Union, by notification in the Gazette, to be a prohibited place for the purposes of this Act on the ground that information with respect thereto or damage thereto, would be useful to an enemy, and to which a copy of the notification in respect thereof has been affixed in (Burmese) and in the (language of the locality, if any)”. Under the terms of this section, the concerned factory is not a place subject to this law at all. The factory is still under construction and even the buildings have not been finished yet. Local people and farmers said in court that no signboard or any notification near the factory area states that the area of the factory is a prohibited place. The factory workers also don’t have any employee cards given by the factory. Moreover, according to the testimony of Colonel Htet Wai Aung, the Security Officer of the factory, the factory didn’t produce any weapons till now and it is still under construction. Workers from the factory are from the Asia Metal Company, and the villagers pass near the factory area everyday, whereas the published photos of the factory were taken far from the factory.
Three of the accuses, Paing Thet Kyaw, Si Thu Soe and Lu Maw Naing were all forced by the military to confess and their confessions have been submitted to court. Lu Maw Naing’s wife, Ma Lwin Lwin Myint, was also temporarily detained when she went to visit him in prison.
The arrested men were not sending any secret documents by spying to other powerful countries. They were merely trying to acquire information concerning land confiscating by the military, Myanmar Police Force, ministries, the army holding company, and businessmen. The contents of the published article reflect this orientation and it should be obvious to any fair-minded person that they do not deserve to be punished.
In view of these and other flaws in the current case, we urge that the prosecution of these five persons be ceased and the media in Myanmar is able to report openly and without fear of any intimidation or prosecution.
We regret to note that despite the changed political conditions in Myanmar, still many journalists and writers are facing legal actions for doing nothing rather than exercising their right to free expression. Recently, the broadcast media remains under direct state control or is tightly monitored. Only the print media is able to communicate relatively freely on matters of national concern such as those that the journalists were working on in this instance.
By convicting the five men, the court, acting on behalf of the military, is sending a signal that certain topics – including those that question the predominance of the army in all spheres of political and economic life will not be tolerated. Indeed, the case is only one of a number currently going on against journalists in Myanmar.
Therefore, we call for the reversal of these convictions and release of the five men at the earliest opportunity. We take the opportunity to note that the case is not sufficient that the men be released through a presidential pardon, as have other persons in recent times, since the pardon keeps the conviction of the accused intact. These men have committed no crime. Not only do they not deserve to be in prison, but also they do not deserve to have a criminal record. Therefore, the sentence should not merely be pardoned but overturned completely. The precedent of the case is really determine to what extent the right to freedom of opinion and press will be apllied in the transitional democratic country of Myanmar.
Jakarta, July 11th 2014
Executive Coordinator of KontraS
*For further information please contact Ms.Ninies (firstname.lastname@example.org) or through KontraS Secretariat (email@example.com)