A court in Myanmar sentenced two journalists reporting for Turkish state media, their interpreter and their driver, to two months in prison on Friday for violating a law regulating the use of aircraft after they used a drone to film near parliament in the country’s capital Naypyidaw.
Police had arrested Singaporean cameraman Lau Hon Meng, Malaysian reporter Mok Choy Lin on Oct. 27, along with their Myanmar interpreter, Aung Naing Soe, and driver, Hla Tin, and held them at Yamethin Prison in Mandalay region, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital, ahead of their trial.
On Friday, a judge sentenced the four, who had been working on a documentary for Turkish Radio and Television Corporation subsidiary TRT World, to two months in prison for violating the 1934 Aircraft Act—a charge that carries a maximum three-month jail term.
The act allows authorities to pursue legal action against anyone who flies aircraft over “any specified area, either absolutely or at specified times.”
According to Khin Maung Zaw, Mok’s lawyer, the four had only learned they would be charged under the Aircraft Act upon their arrival in court. Police had initially investigated whether charges of violating an import-export rule—which carries a sentence of up to three years in prison—would be brought against them.
The two foreign nationals had pled guilty to the lesser charge in the hope of getting out of jail time, the lawyer told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“We all thought that they would only be sentenced to paying a fine of about 50,000 kyats (U.S. $37) if they admitted this as their first violation, but [all four] were sentenced to a two-month imprisonment,” he said.
Khin Maung Zaw said he had applied for bail for the four at Friday’s hearing, but was rejected, adding that he plans to appeal that their sentence be reduced to a fine at a district court.
A hearing will be held on Nov. 16 to determine whether the defendants will face charges for violating the import-export rule, he added.
Reuters news agency quoted Mok ahead of Friday’s proceedings expressing frustration over the lack of transparency in the court’s legal process.
“We have no idea what is going on, and we are not allowed to speak to our family,” she said.
“And the rules and procedures are not explained to us. We were asked to sign statements that are completely in Burmese that we cannot understand.”
Reuters also cited interpreter Aung Naing Soe as saying that the four had not been mistreated while in custody, though police had asked about who they had spoken to and trips he made to several restive regions, including Rakhine state, where Myanmar blames attacks by ethnic Rohingya militants on security posts for provoking a brutal military counter-insurgency launched in August.
Members of Myanmar State Counselor and de facto leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party defended the sentence, saying the defendants had violated the law and risked national security in doing so.
“It shouldn’t be like this if we see it from the perspective of press freedom, but we must consider the aim of the journalists for doing it,” said NLD spokesperson Monywa Aung Shin.
“As our country is under threat from the international media, the authorities took action against them for reasons of security and to protect the nation’s sovereignty.”
Lawyer Aung Thein, an NLD lawmaker in the Lower House of parliament, pointed out that under the Aircraft Act, authorities were within their rights to take action against any form of flight.
“We can’t say it is wrong to sentence them, as they violated an existing law—they can ask permission to visit and observe the area of parliament, but they tried to view it with a drone and that is a violation of an existing law,” he said.
“It is also not a strong sentence, as they only got two months imprisonment.”
Myanmar Press Council member Myint Kyaw questioned the judge’s decision, however, saying the sentence was too harsh.
“I don’t think they should have received a jail sentence—the authorities haven’t announced anything about people not being allowed to use drones and this was their first violation,” he said.
“They may also be charged under the Import-Export Act and could receive jail sentences for that. I don’t think it’s fair and they should only have to pay a fine. This kind of reaction only frightens people, but isn’t effective in stopping them.”
International press freedom group, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), also condemned the sentence in a statement Friday, urging authorities in Myanmar to “release the reporting team immediately.”
“We condemn today's sentencing to prison of journalists Mok Choy Lin and Lau Hon Meng, their interpreter and driver,” said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative.
“Without clear legislation on drone use, Myanmar's legal authorities are making up the rules as they see fit to suppress the news media. Journalists should never be jailed for their reporting activities.”
While none of the four defendants are Turkish nationals, the case has ratcheted up diplomatic tensions after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Myanmar’s military of carrying out “genocide” of Rohingya Muslims in the Buddhist-majority country—a charge Myanmar’s government has denied, despite similar accusations by a top United Nations’ official.
More than 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled Myanmar for neighboring Bangladesh since the military operation began.
Reported by Htet Arkar and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.