The western world reacted with dismay when a judge in Egypt sentenced three journalists to prison for reporting on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, which the government had labeled a terrorist group.
Now a similar situation has occurred in Myanmar, where a provincial court this week sentenced a weekly newspaper’s manager and four of its journalists to 10 years in prison at hard labor for reporting that their government produces chemical weapons.
In addition, the newspaper folded because of the expenses it incurred in defending its free press rights in court.
The “hard labor” aspect of their sentences suggests they’ll be building bridges, digging ditches and carrying out similar tasks, a common practice when for decades the military reigned supreme in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s journalists described the harsh sentences as “a major blow” to their country’s recently won press freedoms. For 50 years, the journalists had endured heavy censorship and persecution.
“The Special Branch of the police force, a unit feared during military rule, has visited the newsrooms of a number of publications in recent weeks and asked to see financial records,” The New York Times reported Friday.
“A journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an online news site, was jailed earlier this year for trespassing and disturbing the work of a civil servant,” the Times report continued, and although the nature of the “disturbance” wasn’t described, it may have amounted to simply asking questions.
When he gained power three years ago, Myanmar President Thein Sein formally abolished censorship and allowed a free press. It seemed that the nation’s long nightmare was over.
Now, he appears to have backtracked.
“If media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws,” he declared.
Both Egypt and Myanmar (still called Burma by many) are supposedly democracies, but it is impossible to reconcile their embrace of democracy with their actions against the press.
“This is injustice!” U Tint Hsan, the chief executive of Unity, the Myanmar weekly, shouted after hearing his sentence. “This is an attempt to control the press!”
Meanwhile, in Egypt, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, the newly elected president and former head of the nation’s military, conceded that the June 23 sentencing of three Al-Jazeera journalists has had a “very negative” impact on his nation’s reputation.
“I wished they were deported immediately after their arrest instead of being put on trial,” el-Sissi told an online newspaper.
Right groups around the world denounced the trial as a “sham.” Two of the defendants received seven-year sentences, while the third got 10 years.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry described the verdicts as “chilling and draconian” but el-Sissi, even though he covets American military support, vowed he would not intercede on behalf of the journalists.
Washington is in an awkward spot, needing Egypt’s support on key Middle East issues but unhappy with the new leadership in Cairo.
Egypt’s president conceded the case presents his government with a foreign policy challenge, but he denied the trial was politically motivated.
There is considerable tension between Egypt and Qatar, the Gulf state that owns Al-Jazeera, because Qatar supported the ousted Islamist president Mohammed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood.
In fact, after Morsi was deposed last year, many of his supporters fled to Qatar to avoid the government crackdown that put thousands of their colleagues in jail.
Since the “Arab Spring” of 2011, Egyptians have been demanding democracy. In Myanmar, the people thought they’d gained it.
But political leaders too often have their own agenda.
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