Press freedom groups have condemned Myanmar’s military junta this week for sentencing a photojournalist to 20 years in prison, the harshest prison term handed down to a media worker since the February 2021 coup.
On Wednesday, Sai Zaw Thaike, a photographer for the local outlet Myanmar Now, was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment with hard labor by a closed-door military court that convened inside Insein prison in Yangon.
Sai Zaw Thaike was arrested in May in Rakhine State, in Myanmar’s west, while covering the aftermath of cyclone Mocha, which caused the death of at least 148 people and damaged tens of thousands of buildings. According to a report by Myanmar Now, the photojournalist has since been held in pre-trial detention without access to a lawyer and has been denied family visits, much like the 25,000-odd people who have been detained since the military takeover.
“All of Sai Zaw Thaike’s colleagues at Myanmar Now and I are deeply saddened to hear of the lengthy sentence handed down to him,” the publication’s editor-in-chief Swe Win said in a statement. “His sentencing is yet another indication that freedom of the press has been completely quashed under the military junta’s rule, and shows the hefty price independent journalists in Myanmar must pay for their professional work.”
The photojournalist was arrested for his “connections with illegal news outlets,” and initially faced charges under four different laws, including the Natural Disaster Management Law and Section 505a of the Penal Code, which targets anyone who causes “fear to a group of citizens or the public,” who spreads “false news,” or “agitates a criminal offense against a Government employee.”
Shawn Crispin of the Committee to Protect Journalists described the sentence against Sai Zaw Thaike as “grotesque” and an “outrage.” Cédric Alviani of Reporters Without Borders said that given the climate of fear in which Myanmar’s journalists are required to work right now, the photographer “should be treated as a hero rather than persecuted by the authorities.”
Since the military coup, the independent media, which expanded rapidly during the years of political and economic opening in the 2010s, was an immediate target of the junta after it seized power. Thirteen independent media outlets had their licenses revoked in the immediate aftermath of the takeover, and since then at least 156 journalists have been arrested, according to the media rights monitoring group Detained Journalists Information, of whom at least 50 were still behind bars as of May. Most have been charged with incitement under Section 505a, but a number have also been charged under terrorism statutes.
Military authorities raided Myanmar Now’s office in Yangon shortly after the coup and later revoked its publishing license, though it, like many other domestic media outlets, has gone underground and carried on its work in cramped and dangerous circumstances. Kay Zon Nway, a video journalist working for Myanmar Now, was arrested while covering an anti-coup protest in Yangon in the weeks after the coup, and was later released as part of a broader amnesty that June.