Foreign Journalists Deported After Covering Student Protests

By Feliz Solomon 16 February 2015

RANGOON — Two foreign photographers were forced to leave Burma over the weekend after documenting student protests without journalist visas, the Ministry of Information has confirmed.

The two Spanish nationals, both in their 30s, were apprehended by Burma’s Special Branch police on Friday afternoon in Irrawaddy Division. The pair boarded a flight out of the country on Saturday morning.

“Immigration officials confirmed that they deported two Spanish men on Saturday,” Minister of Information Ye Htut told The Irrawaddy on Monday. “They followed the student protesters in Ayyarwaddy [Irrawaddy] region and took photos [and] interviews with the protestors. When local officials inspected their passports, they came with [a] tourist visa not as a journalist.”

One of the men told The Irrawaddy shortly before their departure that they met with student demonstrators on Thursday night and explained that they were freelance photojournalists. They remained with the group until their arrest the following day.

Police approached them in the afternoon and escorted them to the local immigration office, where they were asked to show their passports. Traveling without the documents, the pair was transported to Rangoon to retrieve them.

The men were taken to Rangoon International Airport with little explanation, and later informed that they would be flown to neighboring Thailand.

Both had entered Burma on tourist visas, which do not entitle them to work as journalists inside the country. Burma’s Ministry of Information requires journalists to provide proof of an officially recognized media sponsor to be eligible for a visa.

The pair was in Burma photographing a student movement protesting a new education law. Demonstrations that began in November 2014 swelled to a critical mass within days, after which student leaders paused the protests and demanded that the government take action to amend the law within 60 days.

Protests resumed on Jan. 20, when those 60 days had expired. Hundreds of students set off by foot from Mandalay—Burma’s second largest city—to the commercial capital, Rangoon. Smaller solidarity marches soon sprung up in other parts of the country, planning to converge along the route.

The government agreed to negotiate with student activists, and on Feb. 11 accepted their demands. Demonstrations continued, however, pending legally binding amendments.

Growing crowds of protesters have received several signs of warning from the government. Home Affairs Minister Lt-Gen KoKo recently cautioned that the rallies were considered a “threat” to national stability during a broadcast aired on state television, urging families to recall their sons and daughters.

The demonstrators have thus far not faced legal action or force, though the Ministry of Information announced on Friday that “necessary measures” would be taken to “prevent undesirable consequences” should they enter Rangoon, signaling that tolerance is waning.

On Monday, demonstrators in Irrawaddy Division announced that they would not enter Rangoon Division, and would instead turn back and return to their homes as the government had ordered. A core column of protesters from Mandalay, however, have vowed to continue their march.

Saturday’s deportation was the second such incident in less than a year. In May 2014, Australian journalist Angus Watson was deported after reporting on a demonstration in Magwe, central Burma, demanding greater press freedom. The government accused Watson of both violating the terms of his business visa and taking part in the demonstration, which he and his employer refute.