HSIPAW, Shan State — U Aye Naing, one of three detained journalists facing trial for an unlawful association charge, has urged the country’s top leaders to try to grasp the nature of the job of a journalist.
“I would like to tell President U Htin Kyaw, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Army Chief [Snr-Gen] Min Aung Hlaing that they might know what Article 17(1) [of the Unlawful Associations Act] is. But they should try to understand what media is,” U Aye Naing told the media and supporters outside of Hsipaw Court on Friday when asked a question by The Irrawaddy.
“If they appreciate that the media plays an important role in national reconciliation, they should put what they think into practice,” he said.
The three journalists appeared at court on Friday for their third trial. They have been in prison for 46 days since their arrest.
“Not to mention armed groups like the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army, which the journalists were arrested for contacting]…even if international terrorist organizations like ISIS said they had information for us, we would have to go and risk our lives,” said U Aye Naing.
U Aye Naing also criticized that an army major, one of the complainants against the journalists, did not appear to give testimony in court on Friday as planned, providing the excuse that he was on military duty.
“We have to stay in prison another week [since he didn’t show up to testify],” he said. “This means, if five of them don’t show due to military duties, that’s five more weeks we’ll wait in prison,” he added.
“They are making an example of us to threaten the media. This arrest is a threat to the right to information and press freedom,” another detained journalist Ko Pyae Phone Aung told supporters.
“The State Counselor has said that legislation that does not fit with the current times should be changed. Now is the time to do so. Article 17(1) must be scrapped if the country wants peace,” said detained journalist Lawi Weng.
“The country will go nowhere with the oppression of the media,” said U Aye Naing.
The Irrawaddy reporter Lawi Weng and Democratic Voice of Burma reporters U Aye Naing and Ko Pyae Phone Aung were arrested on June 26 in Namhsan on their way back from covering a drug-burning ceremony held by ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to mark the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse.
Six men – three journalists, two drivers and a local man – were traveling in two vehicles near Phayagyi village, and were arrested on the road between Namhsan and Lashio townships on suspicion of connection with the TNLA, which operates in the area.
The journalists and a local man were charged under Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act for contacting the TNLA, while the drivers received additional charges for the two unlicensed vehicles. They were placed in detention in Hsipaw Prison.
Myanmar National Human Rights Commission member U Yu Lwin Aung met with the three detained journalists Wednesday, and said that they did not break the law.