MYANMAR:Release Sought for Myanmar Journalists Held Over Chemical Weapons Report

Friday 7 February 2014

Date: 4 February 2014

Type: News

Source:Radio Free Asia

Keywords: Journalists, press freedom

Myanmar authorities have arrested five local journalists after they published a report alleging that the country’s military is operating a secret chemical weapons factory, drawing criticism from international rights groups and a local reporters’ council which called for their immediate release.

The four reporters and chief executive of the Yangon-based Unity journal were detained on Friday and Saturday and charged with leaking state secrets in the story published late last month.

The front-page report, which has been pulled from newsstands, claimed chemical weapons were being manufactured at a facility in Pauk township, in central Myanmar’s Magway region, under the instructions of former military junta leader Than Shwe.

Authorities have rejected the report as “baseless” and defended the arrest of the journalists as an issue of national security.

Global press freedom watchdogs Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the arrests as a violation of freedom of information, calling for the immediate and unconditional release of the five.

The Myanmar Journalists’ Council (MJC), an independent local body, sent a public statement to government ministers Tuesday over the arrest, saying the government and media should cooperate as the country embraces reforms.

Urging greater trust between journalists and the government as the country emerges from decades under military rule, MJC secretary Kyaw Min Swe told RFA the Unity journalists’ arrest was something “typical of a country going through a transition period.”

“We want to have discussions to avoid making the problem bigger during this time when we are building trust,” he said.

Leaking state secrets

Police arrested Unity’s Pauk-based reporter Lu Maw Naing on Friday night, later moving him to a facility in nearby Pakkoku township and taking his wife in for questioning, the local Irrawaddy journal reported.

Unity’s chief executive San Tin and Yangon-based reporters Yarzar Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, and Sithu Soe have been held for questioning at Insein prison in Yangon since they were detained on Saturday, it said.

Presidential spokesman and deputy minister of information Ye Htut told the journal that Unity’s report was “a totally baseless accusation,” saying police had received warrants to detain the five for two weeks.

Colleagues told Agence France-Presse all five have been charged under the Official Secrets Act.

Rights groups warned the five could face up to 14 years in prison if they are convicted under the act.

“Under no circumstances should journalists be imprisoned because of the content of their article,” Reporters Without Borders’ head of research Lucie Morillon said, condemning their detention as a “violation of freedom of information.”

Quoting local residents

Unity’s report, which could not be independently verified by RFA, said the factory was built in 2009 on land confiscated from farmers and had a network of 3,000 underground tunnels.

It quoted local residents as saying staff at the facility said they were producing chemical weapons with the help of trainers from China.

Myanmar’s government asserts the country has no chemical weapons program and is preparing to ratify international treaties it signed decades ago banning the use, production, and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons.

CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin said the journalists’ arrest was a sign of further needed reforms in Myanmar, which has eased media restrictions as part of reforms carried out since the military junta stepped down nearly three years ago.

"The fact that journalists can be charged with revealing state secrets shows how desperately [Myanmar] needs meaningful legal reform.”

"Weapons proliferation issues are central to [Myanmar’s] political narrative and journalists should not be threatened or arrested for reporting on topics of national and international importance,” he said.

Reported by Kyaw Thu for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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