Police have filed charges under Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law against the top editor of a Rakhine-based new agency and three reporters, the second prosecution in as many days of journalists for interviews with the Arakan Army since the ethnic force was declared a terrorist group last week, sources in Myanmar said.
The filing of charges against Narinjara News editor-in-chief Khine Myat Kyaw followed a raid Tuesday of the offices in the Rakhine capital Sittwe, in which three reporters from the Narinjara news agency were arrested and questioned by police.
Speaking to RFA’s Myanmar Service, senior reporter Thein Zaw said the March 31 raid on Narinjara's office was led by an officer from the local Sittwe Myoma police station and included local administration authorities and officers from the Special Branch.
“They came and inspected the properties here, and they confiscated the laptop computer that I use,” he said, adding, “At the police station, they asked where the editor-in-chief lives and how we report our news. They also asked who is in charge of publishing the news.”
The three were questioned separately, and were released at around 11 p.m.
Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law forbids contact with the AA which is battling Myanmar’s military for greater autonomy in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state and has been blacklisted by the government as a terrorist group.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, a police officer familiar with the case said that the charges have been filed only against those already accused — the top editor and the reporters — and will not affect other Narinjara employees.
Voice of Myanmar arrest
Articles 50(a) and 52(a) of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law, under which the Narinjara journalists have now been charged, carry a maximum penalty of from seven to ten years to life in prison.
The arrests follow the arrest on Monday of Mandalay-based journalist Nay Myo Lin on terrorism charges after his media organization Voice of Myanmar (VOM) published an interview with AA spokesman Khine Thukha. He was apprehended by authorities at his home on Monday night and appeared in Thanmyathazi Township Court on Tuesday.
Narinjara reporter Naung Khine Aung told RFA that journalists based in war-torn Rakhine state must be left free to contact not just the Arakan Army but any organization they need to speak to.
“How can we produce balanced reports if we don’t contact them?” he asked.
“It is totally unjust to charge these journalists for producing fair and balanced reports. And what is worse is that no one will defend us in situations like this. We are totally defenseless,” he said.
The Myanmar Press Council denounced the crackdown on journalists in a statement released on Wednesday, the online news outlet The Irrawaddy reported.
“At a time when it is important to crack down—together with the official established news media—on the widespread dissemination of fake news about the coronavirus inside the country, taking such action against the [legitimate] media is unacceptable,” it said.
The Myanmar government issued an order last week for internet service providers to block dozens of websites considered “fake news,” including ones that reported on the conflict in Rakhine state. It is unknown if VOM was on the unpublished list.
Eliminating local reporting?
Nay Win San—editor of the Rakhine-based DMG news agency, whose executive director Aung Min Oo was charged last year under the Illegal Associations Act—said that authorities may now be trying to shut DMG and Narinjara News down.
“I think they are trying to eliminate any news agencies based in Rakhine state that focus on Rakhine news,” he said.
“The Myanmar Press Council has widely announced that all problems involving the news media should be resolved through the Press Council, but the authorities aren’t even using laws intended to regulate the news media.”
“Instead, they are using other laws to persecute the news media harshly,” he said.
Journalists from both Narinjara News and DMG have said that charges filed against their agencies have crippled their ability to independently report the news, and say they fear that any of them may now be arrested at any time.
“Prosecuting the news media under the Illegal Associations Act is a violation both of press freedoms and of freedom of speech,” said Zaw Zaw Min, an attorney with the Sittwe-based Rakhine Human Rights Defenders Group.
“As a human rights organization, we are following these cases closely, and we will fight to get justice in these cases.”
Former Myanmar Information Minister Ye Htut told RFA that as fears grow over a possible further spread of COVID-19, it has become increasingly important for journalists to be allowed to freely report the news.
“If the government gets along with the media during this time, this will be good for the country and the people,” he said. “In my opinion, even if media reports are regarded as involvement with [banned] organizations, this is an issue that should be resolved through the Media Council.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Richard Finney.