Myanmar journalists face jail for meeting rebel group

Myanmar journalists face jail for meeting rebel group©Steve Tickner, Frontier
Ko Lawi Weng, one of the three journalists arrested by the military Monday, at a teashop in Loikaw in November 2014.
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NAY PYI TAW — Three journalists detained by Myanmar's military in northern Shan State have been transferred into police custody in Hsipaw and formally charged with Section 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, Frontier has been told.

Ko Lawi Weng of The Irrawaddy, also known as Thein Zaw, along with DVB reporters Ko Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Bone Aung, will appear before a judge in Hsipaw on July 11 after being arrested on suspicion of meeting members of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Namhsan Township, near the Chinese border.

If convicted, the trio face a maximum sentence of three years’ imprisonment.

“At the moment, they are being held in Hsipaw prison and have been charged with 17(1),” Police Lieutenant Aung Gyi of the Hsipow police station told Frontier. “So far, they have just been charged with this offence.”

Concerns for the trio’s safety had earlier been flagged by their employers and media watchdogs after it came to light that the reporters had not been transferred into police custody on Tuesday, contrary to a military statement the previous day that said they had already been sent to police in Lashio.

The reporters were arrested Monday after travelling to TNLA territory to cover an event marking the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

A Monday statement from military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing described the TNLA as a “terrorist group” that was “harming rule of law and peace and stability”.

Lawi Weng, one of Myanmar’s best-known conflict journalists, has made several journeys to meet with TNLA figures in recent years without incident, including other reporting trips to monitor the group’s activities on opium eradication and drug rehabilitation in northern Shan State.

Aye Naing has also spent the last 10 years covered Myanmar’s myriad ethnic conflicts for DVB, while Pyae Bone Aung had built a career across several outlets in print and television journalism before joining DVB last year.

Section 3(7) of Myanmar’s News Media Law broadly exempts journalists from being detained by security forces in the course of their coverage of conflicts.

Myanmar News Media Council member U Myint Kyaw, said the body had sent a letter to the military’s chief of staff to advise that the arrests were contrary to the News Media Law and the government’s commitment to freedom of information.

"The military is trying to censor journalists by forcing them not to connect with or write about ethnic armed groups,” he said. “The government is responsible and needs to intervene in this case.”

Elsewhere, the Committee to Protect Journalists called for the trio’s immediate release.

"Aye Naing, Pyae Bone Aung, and Thein Zaw should be immediately freed and allowed to carry on with their work as journalists," CPJ Asia program coordinator Steven Butler said in a Wednesday press release. "Using the archaic Unlawful Associations Act to incarcerate journalists is an affront to democracy in Myanmar."

However, National League for Democracy spokesman told media Wednesday that he supported the trio's prosecution.

"It's true that they broke the law by going to meet ethnic groups," Win Htein, himself a former political prisoner, told the Central News Bureau broadcaster.

He added that it was wrong for the army to initiate proceedings but insisted that "the government should take action" against the journalists. 

Senior members of the Union government, including State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, met with TNLA representatives on the sidelines of the latest 21st Century Panglong peace conference in May. 

Frontier has been unable to reach Defence Ministry spokesmen Maj-Gen Soe Naing Oo and Maj-Gen Aung Ye Win for comment.

Additional reporting by AFP in Yangon.  

This article originally appeared on Frontier