Asean Politicians Demand Release of Myanmar Journalists

By The Irrawaddy 20 July 2017

YANGON — Southeast Asian politicians called for the immediate release on Wednesday of three journalists arrested last month in Shan State and the cessation of laws in Myanmar used to curb media freedom.

Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) released a statement rebuking the detention of The Irrawaddy’s senior reporter Lawi Weng (U Thein Zaw), and Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) reporters U Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Phyo Naing after the reporters’ hearing date was unexpectedly moved forward a second time.

“Myanmar authorities must immediately release and drop all charges against these dedicated journalists, who have been targeted on flimsy pretexts for simply doing their jobs,” said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

“The clear abuse of existing statutes in this case demonstrates the need for quick action to repeal or amend all laws that have been used to arrest journalists and others for exercising their right to free expression. If the NLD [National League for Democracy] government is serious about promoting the rule of law, it must ensure that laws on the books uphold justice and cannot be used to arbitrarily go after critics of the government or military.”

The journalists were arrested on June 26 by the Myanmar Army in northern Shan State’s Namhsan while on their way back from covering a Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) drug-burning ceremony.

The three reporters—and three men who drove them through the area—were charged under Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for contacting the TNLA and were placed in detention in Hsipaw prison. They could face up to three years in prison if convicted.

“It’s the job of a journalist to speak to all sources. Covering developments in conflict areas is already dangerous work, and journalists shouldn’t have to add to their list of worries the possibility that the military might imprison them based on a century-old law that clearly wasn’t intended to apply to them and should have been repealed altogether long ago,” Santiago said.

The collective of regional lawmakers said the continued use of the Unlawful Associations Act, as well as other statutes such as Section 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law, to imprison media workers and others has raised concerns about the state of press freedom in the country and highlighted the “urgent need” for legislative reform.

At least 71 people have been charged for online defamation under Article 66(d) since its passage, read the statement, including over a dozen journalists, as well as many others for posts made on Facebook.

Myanmar officials have indicated amendments will be made to the Telecommunications Law. These include allowing defendants bail and banning third parties from opening cases unless they are affected directly by the action or are acting on such an affected individual’s behalf.

“This law is overly broad and wide open to abuse. We are glad to hear that the NLD government is considering amending it, and we urge them to pursue a full repeal of Section 66(d). Its continued use represents a clear attempt to stifle criticism of the government,” said APHR Vice Chair Eva Kusuma Sundari, a member of the House of Representatives of Indonesia.

“We hope that Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD will live up to the promises that got them elected: building an open, tolerant Myanmar that respects fundamental democratic freedoms. Freedom of the press is a core component of sustainable democracy, supporting the promotion of transparency, accountability, and the welfare of the people,” Sundari said.