The continued jailing of journalists is a disturbing sign that reforms are in trouble
International support for reform in Myanmar is weakening as authorities in Nay Pyi Taw seem to be losing direction on the path toward the ultimate goal of democracy.
Old habits appeared to have returned last week when the government sentenced four journalists and the chief executive of the Unity newspaper to 10 years with hard labour for reporting about an alleged chemical-weapons factory.
The five were arrested early this year under the 1923 Official Secrets Act after reporting that the factory under the control of the Ministry of Defence was producing chemical arms.
The government denied the accusation and has every right to do so, but jailing the journalists is another matter. The sentence solves no problem and has instead damaged international goodwill backing reforms in the country.
Myanmar has since the 1960s had a poor reputation when it comes to the treatment to mass media. Controls on the freedom of expression have relaxed since the quasi-civilian government of President Thein Sein took control and launched reforms in 2011.
The reforms drew strong support both domestically and internationally. The opposition and dissidents now have more freedom of movement. The news media are growing in both numbers of outlets and the scope of coverage. Censorship has eased under a new media law.
But things have changed over the past year as Myanmar citizens and foreign observers began running out of faith in the reform process. Restrictions on journalists returned in a bid to control criticism and opposing voices.
In April a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, Zaw Pe, was jailed for one year for "disturbing a civil servant” and trespassing after he tried to interview an education official in a government compound. The journalist was released recently after his jail term was reduced on appeal.
The journalists and the executive of the Unity Journal were arrested in February, just days after the article on the chemical weapons was published.
The article alleged that the military was operating the factory in the town of Pauk in Magway.
Rather than using democratic means of handling the accusation by providing the public with official information to establish that the claim was wrong, the government resorted to its familiar authoritarian ways by “punishing the messengers”, who were simply doing their jobs.
If their claim is accurate, of course, the entire region has immense cause for concern, since chemical weapons would pose a significant security and health risk.
The Unity Weekly quoted testimony from residents and workers and printed pictures of the alleged military facility. The issue was in the international spotlight last year when the authorities were accused of using chemical weapons against ethnic-minority rebels in northern Kachin State. Again the government denied the charge and sentenced the journalists.
The international community has expressed disappointment over the latest cases involving the mass media and has called on the government to restore and widen freedom of expression while continuing reforms.
Freedom of expression is the keystone to democracy. Any society where the citizens are denied their right to know the facts and to voice concern is not a democracy.