The Pakokku District Court yesterday ruled that the CEO and four reporters from the Unity Journal violated the Secrets Act, three months after the controversial court case started on February 14.

So-called “Unity Five” were detained in the first week of February following the report on the No. 24 Defence Equipment Factory in Pauk Township, Magway Region in the journal on January 25. Their arrest and trial has captured international attention, amid criticisms that the government is suppressing press freedom.

The court decision was announced during the tenth hearing.

Judge Maung Maung Htay said that Tin San, the CEO of the news magazine, breached Section 3 (1) (A)/9 of the law, as he together with his two reporters Sithu Soe and Yaza Oo approached No.24 Defence Equipment Factory designated as a national security area. Tin San, seen as the man in charge, featured the news with intent to harm state security and national interest, the judge said.

The court also ruled that Sithu Soe, Yaza Oo, Paing Thet Kyaw, who took photos of the scene, and Lu Maw Naing, who wrote the news article also violated the same section.

The sentences were not handed, though. Judge Maung Maung Htay said the court’s decision is just to hold them responsible for the action, which could jeopardise national security and interests. They could challenge the verdict and launch an appeal at various levels, he added.

All the five pleaded not guilty, saying they are just journalists, not spies.

They argued that the story was to expose land grabbing cases, based on local residents’ complaints. Trying them under the law was tantamount to the government’s view that the public is the enemy and the attempt to suppress press freedom.

Kyaw Lin, a defence lawyer for CEO Tin San, said that the case was related to trespassing but the court and government officials charged them accordingly to the unofficial version of the 1923 act. When the official version was enacted, there were two versions of the phrase “any work of defence”. In Section 3 (1), the phrase was translated into ‘fort’ in Myanmar language, while the same phrase appeared in Section 2 (8)(a) as ‘defence plans’.

“I believe my clients are innocent. They were just doing their duty, not meaning to expose the state’s secrets. They were just following the local guide who told them the factory was accessible. We need to examine the Official Secrets Act thoroughly,” Aung Thein, the defence lawyer for four Unity journalists.
He noted that while Section 2 (a) (b) states that one can face actions if trespassing military camps and territories, but they would not be charged under the secrets act. As Section 2 (c) says, a place can be assumed ‘covert’ only when it is termed by presidential notification – the notice must be written in both Myanmar and indigenous languages and posted publicly.

“The attorney said these men trespassed government territories and they should be prosecuted under Section 2 (a) (b). But this does not necessarily mean the prosecution under the Official Secrets Act. There are many sections in this act that can award a three- to 10-year jail sentence. We need to understand the laws clearly. This case is not yet over. I will endeavor as much as I can,” said Aung Thein.

The case was filed by Lt-Colonel Kyaw Kyaw Oo, head of the admin department of the factory on January 30 at Pauk Myoma Police Department. The Unity Five were detained in the first week of February and the trial started on February 14. All appealed once to move the proceedings to other courts and proposed bails twice. All were rejected.
At the court yesterday, 10 defence witnesses showed up including Dr. Than Htut Aung, CEO of the Eleven Media Group.