Some of Myanmar’s major daily newspapers printed black cover pages, on Friday, in a silent protest against the jailing of a reporter who was sentenced to one year in prison for “trespassing and disturbing a civil servant” he had attempted to interview.
The Daily Eleven newspaper ran an almost entirely black cover page, while the Mizzima Daily went with a black sidebar and a message calling for press freedom. The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), where jailed journalist Zaw Pe is a correspondent, ran a black cover photo on its Facebook page, calling for the reporter’s release.
Zaw Pe’s sentencing, on Monday, followed an incident in 2012, when the journalist was reporting on scholarships awarded to Burmese students by a Japanese foundation. An unnamed education department official filed charges against Zaw Pe and the father of a student who had asked about the grants. The father received the same sentence as Zaw Pe.
At the time, Zaw Pe was reportedly interrogated for more than eight hours and had his camera and memory card confiscated.
“As a journalist, it is my job to interview,” Zaw Pe said, in a video released by DVB. “Prosecuting journalists for trespassing and disturbing civil servants will prevent them from approaching government offices in the future. It will compromise the balance of news.”
The video below, by DVB, shows Zaw Pe’s goodbye to his wife and son, before being transferred to jail.
Zaw Pe was sentenced to one year in jail for trespassing and “disturbing” a public official he wanted to interview.
Critics fear that Zaw Pe’s sentencing may signal the intensification of an ongoing general clampdown on press freedom in Myanmar. They are especially disappointed because this renewed hostility to the press threatens to reverse improvements that President Thein Sein advocated with the establishment of a democratic government in 2011 after 50 years of military rule — most notably his release of imprisoned journalists and a his banning the censorship that had defined the country’s media landscape for decades.
But with ethnic tensions in Myanmar escalating dramatically and straining the government, there has been increase in pressure on journalists to support the country's leadership — and the military’s influence has become more pronounced.
“We can write critically, but we have to be careful because we are not yet a real democracy,” Than Htut Aung, a journalist often critical of the military’s, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “National reconciliation, ethnic issues, religious tensions — all of these we and all journalists have to censor by ourselves because our country’s situation is not stable.”
Another journalist was also jailed for trespassing earlier this year — and became the first Burmese reporter to be imprisoned since Thein Sein’s 2012 pardon of political prisoners, among whom were 14 journalists.
Four other journalists have also been held in pre-trial detention over their reporting on an alleged chemical weapons production facility run by the military.
"Today's conviction of journalist Zaw Pe is the latest indication that Burma's once-promising democratic reform program is rapidly being reversed," Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative, said in a statement. "With at least five journalists now in jail, President Thein Sein's vows to uphold press freedom ring increasingly hollow. We call for the immediate release of all reporters being held in Burma."
Local reporters also condemned the sentence.
“The jailing has brought a lot of questions about Burma’s media freedom,” said Aung Soe Htike, a colleague of the jailed journalist.
Zaw Pe's lawyer said he will appeal the sentence.
In the video below, by DVB, Burmese journalists voice their support for Zaw Pe and press freedom in Myanmar.
Myanmar journalists react to the jailing of a colleague.
Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi