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Burma Charges 5 Journalists for Disclosing 'State Secrets'

Burma has charged four reporters and the chief executive officer of a weekly journal with violating the country's state secrets law for publishing a story on an alleged chemical weapons factory.

The case is renewing concerns about media freedom in Burma, also known as Myanmar, which has undergone a series of reforms since direct military rule ended in 2011.

The story, which appeared in the Rangoon-based Unity Journal on January 25, claimed a secret chemical weapons factory was being built in central Burma's Pauk township.

The government has acknowledged that the sprawling, 12-square kilometer facility is a defense ministry factory, but denies it has anything to do with chemical weapons.

Spokesman Ye Htut told VOA's Burmese service that President Thein Sein discussed the arrests during a meeting with a delegation from Human Rights Watch.

""It has got nothing to do with freedom of expression. It has been taken action against them in accordance with our National Security. However they [those journalists arrested] will have full legal rights to defend themselves. And then we have explained to HRW delegation that they will have free [independent] and fair trial."

The four editors and CEO were arrested last week.

The Myanmar Press Council, which works on behalf of Burmese journalists, says the government could have done a better job at handling the case. Press Council member Zaw Thet Htwe told VOA Burmese that authorities should have been informed his group at the very beginning of the case, instead of after the arrest of the Unity Journal journalists.

State media said late Wednesday they have been charged with disclosing official secrets and trespassing on restricted areas of the factory.

Officials said the charges were brought in accordance with Burma's 90-year-old State Secrets Act, though it is unclear what state secret, if any, was unveiled in the article.

Under the State Secrets Act, the journalists could face up to 14 years in prison if convicted of unlawfully entering a state military facility.

Meanwhile, newspaper vendors say authorities have confiscated all copies of the January 25 edition of the Unity Journal.

The moves run counter to the promises of increased media freedom by Burmese President Thein Sein.

Since a nominally civilian government took over in 2011, Burma has introduced a number of media reforms, including ending pre-publication censorship and releasing imprisoned journalists.

But rights group have complained that journalists continue to be subject to arrest, intimidation, and censorship.

The media rights group Reporters Without Borders says Burma still ranks 151st out of 179 nations in press freedom.

(This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Burmese service.)

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