International rights groups, American diplomats, and Myanmar journalists have called for the immediate release of three local reporters arrested on Monday in the country’s volatile northeastern Shan State after attending an event organized by an ethnic armed group that has engaged in recent hostilities with the national army.
Reporters Aye Naing and Pyae Phone Naing from the online news service Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and reporter Thein Zaw from the online journal The Irrawaddy, were detained for “having connections” to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
They were arrested with four other men, who were not identified, on Monday for attending a drug-burning event organized by the TNLA to mark the United Nations International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
The men will be charged under the repressive colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in jail, Reuters reported, citing government and army officials.
London-based Amnesty International issued a statement on Monday urging Myanmar authorities to free the three journalists, “who were detained while carrying out their work in conflict-afflicted northern Shan state.”
“These journalists must be immediately and unconditionally released, and allowed to resume their work freely and without fear,” said James Gomez, the group’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific. “Their arrests send a chilling message to Myanmar’s already embattled media.”
Amnesty International raised concerns about those arrested being charged under the country’s “vague and repressive” Unlawful Associations Act, which is frequently used to arbitrarily arrest and detain people in ethnic and conflict-affected areas.
“These arrests are a crude attempt to intimidate journalists by a military that cannot seem to abide even the faintest criticism,” Gomez said in the statement. “Fearful of any scrutiny of its role in northern Myanmar, where they stand accused of war crimes, the army is doing its best to stop journalists and other observers from accessing these areas.”
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists on Tuesday echoed Amnesty International's call for the immediate release of the three journalists.
The U.S. embassy in Yangon on Tuesday also expressed concern about the reporters’ arrests in light of other recent arrests of journalists.
“Journalists need to be able to do their work, as a free press is essential to Myanmar’s success,” the embassy said on its official Facebook page.
‘We want them freed’
About 25 Myanmar media organizations sent an open letter to government leaders on Tuesday urging the immediate release of the journalists whose arrests they described as “restricting and censoring the press,” The Irrawaddy reported.
Kyaw Phyo Thar, editor of The Irrawaddy, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that the reporters are not criminals.
“They went there to cover antidrug news and got arrested,” he said. “We want them freed.”
Than Win Htut, an editor with DVB, told RFA that officials at the news outlet have not had any contact with the three men.
“We don’t know where they are now,” he said, despite a statement by Myanmar’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief on Monday that they had been taken to the police station in the town of Lashio.
“We want to contact them, want to know how they are doing, and want them to have a chance to talk with a lawyer,” he said. “We want them to have basic human rights, such as having protection under the law.”
Ta Ban La, the TNLA’s foreign affairs coordinator, suggested that soldiers arrested the reporters to try to prevent news about illegal narcotics in Shan state.
“The government army is trying to cover up drug issues in Myanmar as it can’t control these problems,” he said. “The government army has ignored it and hasn’t taken responsibility for this issue."
“It made the arrests as a threat to media people so they do not cover news about this issue in the future,” he said.
Tharlon Zaung Htet, a member of Myanmar's recently formed Committee for the Protection of Journalists, said the reporters were merely doing their jobs in Shan state.
“The media must cover the news,” he told RFA. “We journalists are not engaged in illegal drugs or weapons smuggling or causing riots.”
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.