This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
A well-known photojournalist who documented the aftermath of May’s destructive Cyclone Mocha was sentenced on Wednesday to 20 years in prison with hard labor by a military junta court.
Junta soldiers arrested Sai Zaw Thaik on May 23 in Rakhine state as he was documenting the cyclone’s damage for independent online news service, Myanmar Now.
Sai, 40, is one of the best-known photographers in Myanmar and has continued to work inside the country after the junta closed Myanmar Now following the Feb. 1, 2021, military coup, the news service said in a statement.
The exact charges Sai was convicted under were unknown, but the initial indictment included charges for misinformation, incitement and sedition under various statutes, according to Myanmar Now.
“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,” Myanmar Now’s Editor-in-chief Swe Win said in the 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,” he said.
No right to defend himself
Sai was arrested in the state capital of Sittwe and interrogated for more than a week, Myanmar Now said. He was sent to Insein Prison Court on the outskirts of Yangon in mid-June.
Sai was not examined in any courtroom, nor was he given the right to defend himself or hire a lawyer, according to Myanmar Now.
“The information he went over to report was not about armed resistance,” said Ahla Lay Thuzar, a journalist arrested by the junta in September 2021 and released more than a year later.
“He was only there to report the difficult situations of civilians in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha,” she told Radio Free Asia, adding that the long prison sentence was “something entirely improper.”
Another veteran journalist, who didn’t want to be identified for security reasons, said he believes the junta holds a particular grudge against Myanmar Now and was looking for a way to punish the news service.
“I think a 20-year sentence is the highest a journalist has ever received here,” the journalist and former member of Myanmar Press Council told RFA.
“There are some news agencies that the junta feels more bitter toward,” he said. “There are at least four or five news agencies that the junta targets due to their scale of news distribution.”
Since it was shut down after the coup, Myanmar Now has gone underground and continued to publish news articles on its website. In its statement on Wednesday, it reiterated that it would “continue to provide high-quality reporting that does not compromise on our original commitment to press freedom and democratic reforms.”
Cyclone Mocha made landfall on May 14 with sustained winds reaching over 220 kilometers per hour (137 mph), killing more than 400 people and damaging more than 90% of houses and buildings in northern Rakhine state.
Local residents and aid workers have repeatedly complained in the months since then that food and other humanitarian aid hasn’t reached those affected by the storm.
The junta has tried to cover up the serious human suffering caused by its failure to allow assistance to be transported to those in need, said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director.
“Obviously they wanted to keep photojournalists and reporters out of the area,” he told RFA. “Myanmar’s rights-abusing military junta views all independent media outlets and their journalists as enemies of the state, so it is not at all surprising that Sai Zaw Thaike got hit with such an outrageously long prison sentence.”
Sai was the second Myanmar Now journalist to be arrested by the junta since the military coup. Video journalist Kay Zon Nway was arrested last year while reporting on a protest and was released four months later under a general amnesty.
Since the coup, more than 150 journalists have been arrested in Myanmar, with about 50 still being held. Human rights groups have called on the junta to unconditionally free all journalists targeted in the post-coup crackdown.
“Myanmar Now journalist Sai Zaw Thaike’s grotesque 20-year sentence on blatantly bogus charges is an outrage and should be immediately reversed,” said Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Myanmar’s junta must stop imprisoning members of the press for merely doing their jobs as reporters.”