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Over 50 journalists and their supporters have been charged for protesting illegally after they attempted to take their calls for media freedom directly to Burmese President Thein Sein.
The demonstration was held on Saturday, one day after five media workers from the now shuttered Unity Weekly journal were sentenced to ten years in prison with hard labour. They were found guilty of exposing state secrets after a January report alleged the existence of a “secret chemical weapons factory” in Magwe Division.
Thein Sein was due to meet reporters after discussing Burma’s developing arts scene with local celebrities at the Myanmar Peace Centre (MPC) in Rangoon. Journalists covering the press conference arrived at the MPC wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Stop Killing Press.”
They were stopped from entering by police. Instead, they lined up in front of the building, laid down their cameras and taped their mouths shut in silent protest.
Aung Thura, chief reporter at popular news journal 7-Day Daily, said the protest was to express their disappointment with the recent verdict concerning Unity Weekly.
“We want to express our disappointment with the ten-year sentence handed to the Unity Weekly staff and with the current oppression of media freedom,” he said. “In protest, we are not covering the Myanmar Peace Centre event.”
More than 50 participants have now been indicted for protesting without permission – a charge that Burma’s authorities regularly employ to stifle rallies.
Maung Maung Oo, deputy superintendent of Kamaryut Township police, confirmed the charge.
“We are taking action under Article-18,” the officer told DVB on Saturday. “There are about 50 reporters facing charges.”
Saturday’s crackdown marks the largest group of people charged under the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Act, a law enacted by Thein Sein’s government. It is not the first time journalists have been slapped with the charge, as they fight for the right to report in the face of a perceived curtailing of Burma’s media freedoms.
Zaw Htet Htwe of the Interim Press Council, told DVB last week that the Unity verdict could be taken as an indication that all media are at risk of prosecution in Burma “at any time”.
“The government will not tolerate us touching upon issues about the nation, about government policy or politics,” he said.