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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States, which has made a priority of improving relations with Myanmar, said on Friday it was "very concerned" by reports that four journalists and a newspaper boss were sentenced to 10 years' hard labour there this month.
The sentences sent "the wrong message about Burma’s commitment to freedom of expression, including for the press," a State Department spokesman said. Myanmar is also know as Burma.
"The Burmese government has made tremendous progress in the last three years, working to develop an environment conducive to free, fair and independent media," said the U.S. spokesman, who did not want to be named.
"This is a critical element of a vibrant and well-functioning democracy. We urge the government of Burma to continue that trend and respect the rights of all journalists."
The four journalists and the chief executive of the Unity newspaper were sentenced on July 10 for reporting about an alleged chemical weapons factory, legal and media sources said.
They were arrested this year under Myanmar's 1923 Official Secrets Act after reporting that a factory under the control of the Ministry of Defense was producing chemical weapons. The government denied the allegations.
Amnesty International called it "a very dark day for freedom of expression in Myanmar."
Myanmar's two-year experiment with press freedom at first moved rapidly under President Thein Sein, a former military commander whose reforms since 2011 have helped persuade Europe and the United States to roll back crippling trade sanctions.
However, a string of arrests over the past seven months has reversed the trend and has appeared to hark back to the decades of tough military rule that preceded Thein Sein's government.
The United States has been seeking to encourage reforms in Myanmar, a strategically important country in Asia, where Washington is competing for influence with an increasingly assertive China.
President Barack Obama has sought to present Myanmar as a foreign policy success, but the Asian country's handling of ethnic and religious tensions and other human rights issues has been viewed in Washington with growing concern.
The Republican chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Ed Royce called this month for new sanctions on Thein Sein's government and a halt to military cooperation until persecution of minorities ends.
His Democratic counterpart, Eliot Engel, said Thein Sein's government needed to show real progress on rights before receiving any new U.S. policy concessions.
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Editing by Chris Reese)