The 'Unity Journal' case in Myanmar has been cited as an example of media freedom under threat and as proof that reforms are slowing down. The case began with an article published in Unity Journal in early 2014, which claimed that a named defence facility was really a chemical weapons factory. The Government denied the report, claiming the accusations were baseless and highlighting that it relied only on comments from 'locals'.
Officials also reportedly confiscated unsold copies, and arrested and charged the journalists as well as the journal's CEO, citing violations of national security. Following a trial, the group was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act of 1923 for trespassing and taking photographs inside a defence facility without permission. In July, they were sentenced to 10 years imprisonment with hard labour.
On The Interpreter, Andrew Selth put the chemical weapons claims in perspective, and Irrawaddy also took a closer look. Many criticised the Government's initial response and the journalists' sentences. Commentaries ranging from Amnesty International to the New York Times condemned the Government response, while some seemed seem to suggest that the quality or accuracy of the story was less relevant than the outcome of the case.
However, the quality and accuracy of the article is relevant, as is the legality of the journalists' behaviour. Critical assessment of this case and the article has generally been neglected in favour of portraying the journalists as victims who were merely 'doing their jobs'. But this is not entirely accurate.
Although the 'chemical weapons' claim was on the Journal's front page and in the article's heading, there were few references to it in the article itself. However, the article did discuss other sensitive issues including alleged land confiscation, and included descriptions and photographs of the site and its (military) personnel, including claims of presence of 'Chinese' workers. Any of these were likely to annoy or embarrass the Government.
The article gained significant international attention and has been described as 'investigative reporting', suggesting it was a well-researched and evidence-backed piece. It wasn't.
The article's sourcing was hazy and questionable. It provided no supporting evidence, especially for the central allegation, despite one of the journalists claiming he had such evidence. The article also lacked a clear focus, dedicating paragraphs to irrelevant information (such as the origins of bricks used at the site and its water and electricity sources). The concluding paragraphs were straight-up opinion.
One Myanmar journalist and political analyst criticised Unity Journal's journalistic ethics for publishing the article, citing the lack of credible evidence, irrelevant information and potentially misleading use of photographs. Bertil Lintner eloquently described the article as 'a crap report' that 'was poorly researched'.
Others in Myanmar understood that the journalists were probably in the wrong. For example, the secretary of the Interim Press Council suggested the Government should forgive the journalists' mistakes, since 'some media people are not professional' and are inexperienced, while U Thiha Saw of the Myanmar Journalists association said that journalists had a duty to maintain ethical standards and strive for accuracy.
It may not be palatable for some, but we need to recognise these faults when using this case in claims about media freedom in Myanmar.
Even if the journalists' claims were accurate, the article did nothing to support or prove this. Conversely, the Government didn't help its cause by initially seizing unsold copies. This made critical assessment, which may have worked in the Government's favour, much harder.
The guilty verdict also shouldn't be surprising. The journalists admitted committing the offences. In an interview shortly after publication, the CEO separately admitted that his staff entered the facility. The legal defence against trespassing (arguing that the facility did not have 'No Entry' signs) was weak, as the journalists admitted knowing it was a defence facility and wrote that locals had been warned about trespassing. As journalists, they would know even without reading the Official Secrets Act or having signage in place that defence sites have restricted access.
The guilty verdict was not surprising, but the sentence of 10 years imprisonment with hard labour was, even if the Official Secrets Act allowed for up to 14 years. While journalists who trespass on military facilities in other countries are also likely to be arrested and charged, their sentences are not likely to be so severe. Moreover, since the Unity staff who were charged each played different roles, and therefore had different degrees of involvement, it doesn't seem fitting that they all received the same sentence.
The sentence supports a view that the Government was using this case to punish the journalists and send a message to the local media, which is hard to dispute. During the trial, the prosecution reportedly submitted a list of 40 witnesses for what appeared to be a straightforward case. It sent a clear message about how the Government viewed, and would treat, national security issues. Specifically, it served as a warning that the Ministry of Defence and its facilities were off limits.
While there are numerous cases involving official interference with the media that deserve scrutiny, this case is relatively straightforward: The journalists wrote an article of questionable quality whose main claims they did not (and perhaps could not) support, they broke the law while doing so and they were punished for it.
Recent news that an appeal was granted will be welcomed. If successful, it may result in a lighter sentence while still allowing the Government to punish the journalists and send its message. An amnesty is also a future possibility for political leaders.
For now, this is likely of little reassurance to the journalists and their families. But the case serves as a lesson about the importance of journalistic diligence and the standards journalists are supposed to follow. It should also send a message that freedom of the press does not mean journalists are free from their responsibilities, including in complying with local laws and reporting accurately.