Zaw Ye Htet, the editor of the online news agency Dae Pyaw, was tried and sentenced with exceptional speed on 20 May, just five weeks after his arrest on the same day that he published the offending article reporting that a person had died from the coronavirus in Karen.
The court convicted him under the vaguely-worded section 505 (b) of the penal code, which penalizes “any statement, rumour or report, with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause, fear or alarm to the public.”
According to official figures, Karen has so far had only two Covid-19 cases (and no deaths) although 16,000 migrant workers have had to return from Thailand as a resut of the measures taken there to combat the pandemic.
Designed to punish
“This summarily imposed sentence was clearly designed to punish Zaw Ye Htet for trying to shed some light on the truth behind the not very credible official figures,” said Daniel Bastard, the head of RSF’s Asia-Pacific desk.
“The haste with which the court inflicted such a harsh punishment testifies to a desire to intimidate all journalists in Myanmar who try to inform their fellow-citizens about the reality of the coronavirus pandemic. We urge the judicial system to recover at least a semblance of credibility by releasing this journalist on appeal.”
On the pretext of combatting Covid-19 disinformation, the communications ministry issued orders to the country’s four mobile phone operators in the last two weeks of March to block access to a total of 221 “fake news” websites, to use the ministry’s term.
Several leading media outlets are among those that are now in practice blocked, as are a number news sites aimed above all at Myanmar’s ethnic minorities, which include the population of Karen state.
Myanmar is ranked 139th out of 180 countries and territories in RSF's 2020 World Press Freedom Index.