BANGKOK: A military court in Myanmar has sentenced two journalists to two years in prison for their reporting, a move that was decried by rights groups as the latest assault on press freedom since the country's coup.
Aung Kyaw, 31, a reporter for the Democratic Voice of Burma, and Zaw Zaw, 38, a freelance reporter for the online news agency Mizzima, were convicted Wednesday by the court in Myeik, a city in southern Myanmar.
The two had been charged under a recently revised provision in the penal code with spreading misinformation that could incite unrest, a charge that critics say criminalizes free speech.
The convictions are the latest moves against journalists since the military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in a February coup. According to Myanmar’s Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, about 90 journalists have been arrested since the takeover, with more than half still in detention, and 33 still in hiding.
The coup sparked massive civilian protests against military rule that have been met with a brutal crackdown that has left hundreds dead.
The Democratic Voice of Burma and Mizzima are among five local media outlets that were banned in March from broadcasting or publishing after their licenses were canceled. Like many other banned media outlets, both have continued operating.
A statement issued by the Democratic Voice of Burma said Aung Kyaw was arrested March 1 for reporting about anti-junta demonstrations in Myeik. It said Aung Kyaw defended himself in court after his lawyer was threatened by authorities.
A statement from Mizzima said Zaw Zaw was detained about two months ago at his home while covering events for them in Myeik and Dawei, also in southern Myanmar.
The news agency said it “categorically opposes the two-year prison sentence handed to Zaw Zaw and calls for the immediate release of all journalists unjustly detained by the ruling junta, including Zaw Zaw and another four detained Mizzima journalists."
"Mizzima firmly believes that journalism and the right to freedom of expression is not a crime and that Mizzima and all independent Myanmar media outlets should be allowed to freely function in Myanmar,” it said.
Family members of both reporters were not allowed to attend their hearing at the military court, but were allowed to talk to them by phone for a few minutes after they were sentenced. During their call, Aung Kyaw told his wife to tell the media that he would not appeal because he no longer believed in the law under military rule.
Aung Kyaw is the second Democratic Voice of Burma journalist to be convicted since the coup. Reporter Min Nyo was sentenced on May 12 to three years in prison for violating the provision on spreading misinformation.
The military’s move to go after journalists from respected media outlets is "all about strangling any independent narratives about what’s happening in Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
“The junta is systematically arresting and imprisoning journalists whenever they can, vaulting Myanmar into the position of being one of the newest, most dangerous countries to report from in the region,” Robertson said.
He called the charges against the journalists “politically motivated and bogus.”
“They should not have been arrested, much less imprisoned, for simply doing their jobs,” he said.