Unity Weekly trial continues, media workers emphasising press freedom

The front page of the 25 January edition of Unity Weekly depicted an alleged secret chemical weapons factory. (PHOTO: DVB TV)
The trial of five media workers of Burmese news journal Unity Weekly accused of revealing state secrets continued on Tuesday, with members of the media testifying to the court about the importance of press freedom.

Unity Weekly’s reporters Lu Maw Naing, Sithu Soe, Aung Thura and Yazar Oo were arrested on 30 and 31 January, along with the news journal’s CEO Tint Hsan. Charged under Article 3 of the Official Secrets Act, the group was accused of revealing state secrets after publishing a report five days earlier about a government facility being constructed in Magwe’s Pauk Township by the Burmese military, which they alleged to be a chemical weapons factory.

Veteran journalist Pho Thaukkyar, a sitting member of Myanmar Journalists Association, and Eleven Media Group’s CEO Than Htut Aung testified as witnesses in defence of the five journalists during a hearing at the Pakokku District Court.

“I testified in court that Unity Weekly published their report as news coverage, but had no deliberate intention to divulge state secrets, and the government should not be too harsh upon media workers,” Pho Thaukkyar told DVB, adding that prosecuting the journalists for covering sensitive topics would violatepress freedom.

“We believe that the public needs to be informed about the facility,” he continued. “And I suggested that the government – even if they should see otherwise – should take into consideration the motives of the publication, which is whether their intention was to just report the news or if they meant to jeopardise the country.”

Theingi Tun, the wife of Yazar Oo, worried that her husband’s long detention would cause his health to deteriorate. The five are currently being held in Pakokku Prison and have been there since February.

“My husband suffers from Hepatitis-B. He keeps saying he’s doing fine in prison, but I can tell by his appearance that that is not the case,” Theingi Tun said, adding that prison officials have not allowed her to bring him medication.

“They denied us permission to bring him medication, citing a regulation that the medicines need to be checked by prison doctors before he is allowed to take them,” she said.

The arrest of the Unity Weekly’s CEO and reporters has brought condemnation from both local and international press groups, with the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists denouncing the Burmese government’s actions and the country’s need for “meaningful legal reform.” If the court finds them guilty, the five face a maximum prison term of up to 14 years.

Rober San Aung, the group’s defence lawyer, said the trial will continue on 30 June.

By PAING SOE (DVB)

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