Myanmar authorities have arrested a Mandalay-based journalist on “terrorism” charges after his media organization published an interview with the spokesman of the Arakan Army following the government's blacklisting of the Rakhine ethnic force as an unlawful association and terrorist group, a judge and the wife of the accused man said Tuesday.
Voice of Myanmar (VOM) editor-in-chief Nay Myo Lin could face life in prison following the March 27 publication of reporter Khine Linn San’s interview with Khine Thukha, spokesman for the Arakan Army (AA), which is battling Myanmar soldiers for greater autonomy in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state.
Kyaw Zwa Lin, a judge at Chanmyathazi Township Court, said officer Khin Maung Win of Mandalay region’s Information Police filed the case as the plaintiff.
“They published the interview with AA spokesperson Khine Thukha after the AA was declared a terrorist group,” Kyaw Zwa Lin said about VOM.
“They also published that is it impossible to continue peace conferences with other members of the Northern Alliance without the AA,” he said, referring to the Myanmar government’s peace process during which periodic negotiations have been held among stakeholders, including the Myanmar military and ethnic armed organizations.
The AA has remained outside the government’s nationwide peace agreement and has been engaged in intense fighting with Myanmar forces in Rakhine state for 15 months.
In the VOM interview, Khine Thukha discussed the AA’s reaction to being declared a terrorist group on March 23 under the Unlawful Associations Act, the prospects of continuing peace talks with its Northern Alliance partners, and the impact of the government’s designation the AA’s negotiations with the government on a bilateral cease-fire.
Nay Myo Lin was apprehended by authorities at his home on Monday night and appeared in Chanmyathazi Township Court on Tuesday.
He has been charged under two sections of Myanmar’s Counter-Terrorism Law, which carry jail terms of 10 years to life in prison and three to seven years in jail, respectively, said Myo Khine Swe, director of the Special Investigation Unit under the Home Affairs Ministry, which oversees Myanmar’s police.
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 It is unknown if VOM was on the unpublished list.
Nay Myo Lin said the interview with Khine Thukha was conducted according to established media practices and ethical principles.
“I was charged for publishing the AA spokesman’s interview,” he said after his hearing. “It was conducted in line with media ethics.”
“If the members of the Myanmar Press Council [MPC] review the report and find any violations of media ethics, they can give me any kind of punishment they like,” he added.
The MPC investigates and settles press disputes and protects media workers in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s Media Law, which carries fines for those determined to be guilty of offenses related to their responsibilities and media ethics, allows aggrieved parties to file cases with the MPC as a first resort rather than pursue criminal charges.
Nay Myo Lin’s wife, Zarni Mann, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that her husband has appealed to the MPC for assistance and that she believes police targeted him
“We have appealed to the MPC,” she said. “I think they did it on purpose. The courts have been shut down, and all the trials are being rescheduled because of the coronavirus outbreak.”
Zarni Mann also said that police raided VOM’s offices and confiscated all the computers.
“The situation of the free press is getting worse,” she added.
MPC general secretary Kyaw Zwa Min said Nay Myo Lin’s arrest and the charges against him are unacceptable.
“We have contacted the military to inquire about the case, [but] they are not involved because the case is being handled by the Home Affairs Ministry,” he said.
“The [government] has always told us that if there are problems with the news media, the authorities should talk to the MPC first,” he added. “The MPC cannot accept charges against a journalist under laws that can be rationalized and interpreted as they [police] want.”
Backpedaling on press freedom
Myat Kalay, a member of the Upper Myanmar Journalist Organization, said police should have notified the MPC before filing criminal charges against Nay Myo Lin.
“It has been widely circulated that all charges against the press should be filed only after the MPC has been notified,” she told RFA.
The arrest also points to a backpedaling on press freedom, which did not exist in Myanmar during the rule of former military juntas, Mayat Kalay said.
“[Nay Myo Lin] was asked to go with police for a temporary visit at night,” she said. “The next morning, his family was given a summons for his court trial. This is no different from what the authorities did under the military regime.”
Nay Myo Lin’s next court hearing is scheduled for April 9.
The Committee to Protect Journalists meanwhile has called for Nay Myo Lin's immediate release.
“Myanmar authorities must immediately release journalist Ko [honorific] Nay Lin and drop all charges against him,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ’s senior Southeast Asia representative based in Bangkok, in a statement issued Tuesday.
“Reporting on armed conflict is not the same as being a terrorist, and threatening a journalist with life in prison is inexcusable. Myanmar’s assault on journalists must stop now.”
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.