A woman wearing traditional face cosmetic has her temperature taken as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus at the central railway station in Yangon on March 19, 2020. (Photo by Ye Aung THU / 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 Friday.
The country has only 199 confirmed cases of coronavirus and seen six deaths, although the low numbers tested mean experts fear the true figures are far higher.
Chief editor Zaw Ye Htet was arrested May 13, the same day his online news agency Dae Pyaw published an erroneous article alleging there had been a death due to the COVID-19 in eastern Karen state.
On May 20, just one week later, 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 Friday.
The notorious Section 505(b) is a vaguely-worded law, often thrown at journalists and activists for making any statement that cause fear or alarm.
“We’ll appeal this unfair decision,” Zaw Ye Htet’s wife Phyu Phyu Win told AFP by phone.
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 only reported 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 deputy Asia 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.