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Myanmar journalists sentenced for alleged national security violations

[JURIST] A provincial court in Myanmar [BBC backgrounder] on Thursday sentenced four journalists and the chief executive from the Unity Journal [media website, in Burmese] to a 10-year prison sentence and hard labor for publishing a story in January in violation of the national State Secrets Act, a British colonial law dating back to the 1920s. The report alleged the Myanmar military had seized a sizable amount of land in the central Magwe region of the county for the purpose of producing chemical weapons [BBC report]. In January 2013 the national government denied accusations it used chemical weapons against ethnic minority rebels in the northern state of Kachin. Since President Thein Sein [BBC profile] took office three years ago, he instituted a number of media reforms and abolished some traces of military censorship in the media. However, Thursday's ruling marks the second major instance of government intimidation in the media [NYT report] in the past four months, and the Special Branch of the national police force has reportedly visited news publications in recent weeks to demand financial records. In April a journalist with the Democratic Voice of Burma [media website] was jailed for one year for trespassing and disturbing a civil servant after he attempted to interview a government education official. The state-run newspaper, The New Light of Myanmar, reported the five journalists were also charged with trespassing on the restricted area of the factory, but the newspaper did not disclose [Reuters report] the nature of the facility. A lawyer for the journalists was quoted by Burmese news media that the convicted will appeal the decision. A news media association in Yangon said it would hold a vigil Friday at a Buddhist temple for the journalists and a number of newspapers printed black front pages in protest of the sentences.

Reform [BBC timeline] in Myanmar [JURIST news archive] has happened slowly in the three years since the dissolution [BBC report] of the nation's military government and transition to a civilian regime in 2011. In early May Human Rights Watch (HRW) [advocacy website] urged [JURIST report] Myanmar to protect the freedom of the press and put an end to arbitrary arrests of journalists. The statement listed several journalists who have been arrested since December on politically-motivated charges, including criminal trespass, use of obscene language, and revealing state secrets. Despite the recent arrests, the Myanmar legislature [official website] approved a new media law [JURIST report] in March purportedly affording greater freedoms to local media outlets and the press. In January 2013 Sein abolished [JURIST report] Order No. 2/88, which banned gathering and delivering speeches in public by a group of five or more people.

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