YANGON — Several hundred Myanmar press members and civil society representatives protested in Yangon on Friday, calling for the release of detained journalists under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act and the repeal of the controversial online defamation law.
Members of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (Myanmar) and other media representatives gathered in front of the Yangon City Hall after the recent arrests of four journalists—The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng, also known as U Thein Zaw, and U Aye Nai and Ko Pyae Bone Naing (also known as Pyae Phone Aung) from Democratic Voice of Burma, as well as The Voice Daily’s chief editor U Kyaw Min Swe, all of whom are facing charges filed by the Myanmar military.
The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng and the two journalists from DVB were arrested by the army on the road between Namhsan and Lashio townships in northern Shan State on Monday, along with four other unidentified people. The three reporters had gathered information in areas controlled by ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) for a story on a drug-burning ceremony. The trio were handed over to local police only on Wednesday and they are currently being charged with having violated Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act. Police remanded them to Hsipaw Prison.
The Voice Daily’s U Kyaw Min Swe was charged with defamation under Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law for publishing a satirical article in his newspaper, questioning the country’s long-running armed struggle.
Ko Tha Lun Zaung Htet, a member of the Committee for the Protection of Journalists (Myanmar), said that the purpose of the campaign was to respond to the oppression of the press by the military, which has been using controversial laws to arrest journalists.
“Press members must have the right to do their job anywhere,” Ko Tha Lun Zaung Htet said. “What is important [for journalists] is to report fairly with no bias…It makes no sense to arrest journalists for doing their job and gathering information.”
Members of different civil society organizations and rights groups were also present at the campaign supporting the movement, including Equality Myanmar and the 88 Generation Peace and Open Society.
U Aung Myo Min, executive director of human rights advocacy group Equality Myanmar, said that authorities are using the Unlawful Associations Act, enacted under British rule, to threaten media freedom.
“If [the journalists] were simply carrying out their responsibilities, but not supporting the armed groups’ operations, they should not be charged under Article 17(1),” U Aung Myo Min said.
The arrests, he explained, are “a threatening message” to “the whole media industry” implying that the military “can do whatever they want to journalists.”
Friday’s campaign also included a collection of public signatures demanding that Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Law be repealed.
“Using Article 66(d) is a dangerous trend for all citizens,” Ko Tha Lun Zaung Htet said, highlighting that everyone on social media is made vulnerable by this provision. “It should either be completely revoked or amended not to violate our citizenship rights.”
According to the Research Team on the Telecommunications Law led by activist Maung Saungkha—a poet who was himself sentenced and jailed in 2016 under Article 66(d)—there have been a total of 71 lawsuits filed under the law since its enactment. Among these cases, nine involved the press, with 14 journalists facing trial.