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A court in Myanmar has sentenced a photojournalist to 20 years in prison with hard labor for his coverage of the aftermath of a deadly cyclone, according to Myanmar Now, the media organization he worked for.

The sentence handed down to Sai Zaw Thaike, a photographer with the Independent Online News Service, appears to be the harshest against a journalist detained since the military overthrew the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi in February 2021.

Myanmar Now, which operates underground, reported that a military court tried, convicted and sentenced Sai Zaw Thaike on Wednesday in the first hearing since his detention in the western state of Rakhine.

The news service said he was initially charged with several counts, including a status that falls under the general rubric of treason but is sometimes referred to as sedition. Other charges include incitement, for allegedly causing fear, spreading false news and agitating against a government employee or the military, which carries a maximum jail term of three years.

He was also charged with online defamation, punishable by three years in prison, and violation of a natural disaster management law for allegedly spreading false information about a disaster with the intention of spreading panic in public opinion, which is punishable by imprisonment for up to one year.

Burmese journalist sentenced to 20 years in prison for covering the cyclone |  Burma
Photojournalist Sai Zaw Thaike. Photography: AP

The proceedings took place in Insein prison, in Yangon, the largest city in Myanmar, where the photographer was imprisoned after his arrest. The news agency said Sai Zaw Thaike was barred from visiting his family and had been denied legal representation.

Swe Win, Editor-in-Chief of Myanmar Now, said: “His conviction is yet another indication that freedom of the press has been completely wiped out under the rule of the military junta, and shows the high price independent journalists in Myanmar must pay. pay for their professional work. »

The press freedom organization Reporters Without Borders said in April that Myanmar was the second largest country imprisoning journalists, behind China. The country ranks at the bottom of the group’s 2023 World Press Freedom Index, ranking 176 out of 180 countries.

The media reported that Sai Zaw Thaike was arrested on May 23 in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, while recording the damage caused by Cyclone Mocha, the country’s most destructive storm. for at least a decade. Mocha made landfall near Sittwe just over a week before his arrest and caused flash flooding and widespread power outages.

The storm killed at least 148 people in Rakhine state, many of whom were members of the persecuted Muslim Rohingya minority living in camps for internally displaced people. It also damaged more than 186,000 buildings.

Myanmar Now said it did not know what charges covered Wednesday’s sentencing. Details of political trials are usually closely monitored by authorities, and information from Myanmar Now could not be independently confirmed.

Sai Zaw Thaike’s sentencing is the latest assault on press freedom and journalists by the country’s military government, which has cracked down on independent media.

At least 13 outlets, including Myanmar Now, have had their press licenses revoked and at least 156 journalists arrested, of whom around 50 remain in detention, according to local watchdog group Detained Journalists Information. Nearly half of those still in detention have been found guilty and sentenced.

At least four media professionals were killed and others were tortured while in detention.

Some of the outlets ordered closed continued to operate underground without permission, publishing online while their staff continued to report while trying to avoid arrest. Others operate from exile.

The military raided Myanmar Now’s office in Yangon a month after the 2021 takeover and some staff, including editor Swe Win, fled criminal charges and went into hiding as authorities put down their homes under seal.

Sai Zaw Thaike is the second Myanmar Now journalist to be arrested. Video journalist Kay Zon Nway was arrested while covering an anti-coup protest in Yangon in late February 2021, then released four months later under a broad amnesty.

“We are unwavering in our commitment to continue to provide news and information to the people of Myanmar, despite the immense challenges we face,” Swe Win said from exile.