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Bold journalism still risky business in Myanmar

Myanmar’s media environment has opened up and dozens of new journals are testing boundaries, but bold reporting is still a risky business.

Last week, five people were reminded just how risky.

On Friday and Saturday, four journalists and the CEO of Unity ― the relatively obscure journal they worked for ― were arrested by Myanmar’s Special Branch.

They were held and accused of disclosing state secrets by reporting on an alleged chemical weapons plant in a remote area of Magwe division in central Myanmar.

The arrests have raised concerns about the vulnerability of journalists to prosecution. But they also raise issues of journalism standards, and whether Myanmar has chemical weapons plants ― alleged before but never proven.

A senior editor in Yangon, asking not to be named, told The Straits Times, “The government is quite upset with media coverage these days. Obviously they still want to cover up things which might damage the ‘reputation’ and ‘integrity’ of the country, in their own words.”

The news magazine Irrawaddy reported on Sunday that Unity’s report last week, which included photographs, described a purported “secret chemical weapon factory of the former generals, Chinese technicians and the commander-in-chief at Pauk Township.”

The Unity report said the facility, built in 2009 and known only by a number ― 24 ― was a series of buildings linked by more than 300 m of tunnels. Local residents had seen Chinese technicians working there, the report said.

The issue was pulled from magazine retailers’ stocks, the Irrawaddy reported.

It quoted Unity’s CEO Tint San saying just before his arrest on Saturday, that he had evidence to back up his paper’s claims. “I went to the factory myself. We have concrete evidence. I even left out some facts that might disclose state secrets,” he said. “I’m ready to face whatever happens in the future.”

Several senior Myanmar journalists that The Straits Times spoke to were guarded in their comments on the case. But veteran journalist Thiha Saw, chief editor of Open News, said there was a need for journalists to be more aware of their vulnerability.

“Some of the younger journalists don’t know the profession well enough and cross the line,” he said over the phone.

The arrests sent a chill through the media, coming soon after a three-month jail sentence for defamation handed down to a journalist from the more prominent Eleven Media group.

Khine Khine Aye Cho, who writes under the name Ma Khine, was sentenced in December for defamation, trespassing and use of abusive language by a court in Karenni state, where she is based. The case was filed by a local lawyer following an argument when she sought comments from him on an alleged video piracy case.

The sentence was the first handed down to a journalist since reformist President Thein Sein came to power in 2011.

It prompted protests by journalists in Yangon last month. Myint Kyaw, general secretary of the Myanmar Journalist Network, said Ma Khine was simply doing her job.

Speaking to The Straits Times on the phone on Monday, he said the private sector Press Council had called for an urgent meeting today to discuss the arrests of the Unity journalists and the CEO.

Bangkok based Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia of the independent Human Rights Watch, said the arrests were “an ominous throwback to military government days when gagging the press using draconian security laws was commonplace.”

By Nirmal Ghosh 

(The Straits Times)