YANGON - Six Myanmar journalists have been jailed by a Yangon court for "state defamation", the country's interim press council said Friday, amid mounting concern over a roll back of press freedom in the former junta-run state.
The five editorial staff and one publisher were each sentenced to two years in prison on Thursday, according to a statement from the Myanmar Press Council (MPC), which criticised the jail terms.
The group said it "very much regrets this sentence, particularly while there are ongoing meetings to build trust and understanding" between the press, government and army.
The six journalists were prosecuted after their weekly Bi Mon Te Nay news journal published an account of a small protest in the commercial hub Yangon which mistakenly suggested that the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi would form an interim government.
They are the latest in a growing number of journalists being jailed in the Southeast Asian nation, prompting rights groups to warn that it is sliding back towards the harsh methods used to stifle free speech under decades of junta rule which ended in 2011.
"It's not just the journalists who were on trial here, it was also the Myanmar government's political commitment to freedom of the press that was in the dock," said Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch, adding that the jail terms meted out by the Yangon court were "outrageous".
Myanmar ended strict pre-publication censorship, which formerly applied to everything from newspapers to fairy tales, as part of a slew of reforms under its new quasi-civilian government.
But Robertson said the government had continued to use "Draconian military era laws to charge journalists".
The US in July said that jail terms of 10 years - with hard labour - handed down to five journalists over a report accusing the military of making chemical weapons sent "the wrong message".
Myanmar Press Council member Thiha Saw said the Bi Mon Te Nay newspaper report had a "picture and headline which was a bit misleading".
But he said that his group was advocating for a complaint mechanism to prevent people from resorting to the judicial system to resolve issues with the media, adding that the MPC would call for the sentences to be reduced by a higher court.