Myanmar editor jailed for two years over coronavirus error

Myanmar's government has warned people will be prosecuted for spreading misinformation about the pandemic. PHOTO: AFP

YANGON (AFP) - A Myanmar news editor has been jailed for two years after his agency reported a coronavirus death that turned out to be false, his lawyer said on Friday (May 22).

The country has only 199 confirmed cases of coronavirus and seen six deaths, although the low numbers tested means experts fear the true figures are far higher.

Chief editor Zaw Ye Htet was arrested on April 13, the same day his online news agency Dae Pyaw published an erroneous article alleging there had been a death due to Covid-19 in eastern Karen state.

On May 20 he faced trial, an unusually swift process in a country where suspects often languish for months behind bars before being convicted.

"He was sentenced under section 505(b) to two years in jail," by the court in Karen state, his lawyer Myint Thuzar Maw said on Friday.

The notorious Section 505(b) is a vaguely worded law often thrown at journalists and activists for making any statement that causes fear or alarm.

"We'll appeal this unfair decision," Zaw Ye Htet's wife Phyu Phyu Win said.

It is not clear why the trial took place so quickly.

Karen state borders Thailand and saw more than 16,000 returning Myanmar migrant workers early April after the pandemic caused huge job losses in Thailand and borders started to close.

The state has so far reported only two cases of coronavirus and no deaths.

The government has warned people will be prosecuted for spreading misinformation about the pandemic, but this is the first known case.

It is also drafting new legislation on the control of communicable diseases that would make it even easier to criminalise reporters deemed to be causing public panic.

Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson branded the move a "recipe for disaster" and warned against denying people the information they need.

Under international law, restrictions to freedom of speech must be carefully spelt out, he added.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.