YANGON — Legal experts and members of the press have denounced comments made by a senior member of ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party regarding the arrest of three journalists under the colonial-era Unlawful Association Act.
The Myanmar Army arrested seven people, including three journalists, on the road between Namhsan and Lashio townships in northern Shan State on Monday after they had reported in areas controlled by ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA). The reporters included 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.
After more than 48 hours of no information regarding whereabouts of the three journalists, Tatmadaw Adjutant Thet Naing Oo from Light Infantry Battalion No. 503 filed a lawsuit against them under Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act on Wednesday and local police remanded the trio to Hsipaw Prison.
NLD senior member U Win Htein spoke to the media on Wednesday and said that the three journalists had visited the area illegally.
“[Ethnic armed groups] should inform the Peace Commission that they would like to invite reporters and that permission be granted. It will be legal if the Peace Commission allows it,” U Win Htein commented.
He added that those involved in the peace process that meet with ethnic armed groups do not violate any laws, but those who are not related to peace process and do so violate Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act.
U Kyee Myint, a senior lawyer, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday that the comments were made recklessly, and that U Win Htein should think thoroughly before talking to the media as he holds a senior position in the ruling party.
For political purposes, many members of government and military institutions, including army chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, have met with ethnic armed groups that have not signed the nationwide ceasefire agreement, U Kyee Myint pointed out. Because of this, meetings between other institutions, including members of the press, and the armed groups should not be considered illegal if they take place for professional purposes.
“Practicing such a double standard is not acceptable,” U Kyee Myint said.
The Legal Aid Network, a Kachin community-based organization, issued a statement on Thursday describing U Win Htein’s comments as “totally false.”
The statement also pointed out that during peace dialogue conducted around 1963, the then ruling military regime, led by Gen Ne Win, suspended the Unlawful Associations Act to meet with the leaders of rebel groups, and that the NLD government has not done this thus far.
U Myint Kyaw, a member of Myanmar Press Council, said that U Win Htein made such a comment only after this incident had occurred, adding that there was no prior information about a mandate given to the Peace Commission regarding permission for press coverage in ethnic armed group-controlled areas.
“Media should be at least informed in advance if the government will take action against such an incident,” U Myint Kyaw told The Irrawaddy.
U Ye Naing Moe, founder of the Yangon Journalism School, said journalists would not be able to carry out investigative reporting if they had to seek permission from certain organizations in order to meet with news sources.
“This is a fundamental right of journalists given by the society,” U Ye Naing Moe said. “I am extremely surprised, and pity [U Win Htein] for not understanding this fundamental right as a spokesperson [of the ruling party],” he added.
The Legal Aid Network stated that the three journalists did not violate the law, as they were conducting their duties: attempting to get information about TNLA’s drug eradication event to the public, noting that the reporters did not assist in the operations of the armed organization.
If meetings by any ordinary citizen with an “unlawful” association—unilaterally declared as such by the ruling administration—are criminalized, then the standard should apply to any government official or others sent by the government, the organization said.
“Equality before the law is one of the major undisputed principles of the rule of law,” read the Legal Aid Network’s statement. “There is no exception for the government officials. It applies to every person, including those assigned by the government.”
U Win Htein also faced severe criticism from media stakeholders for saying that the arrest of the three journalists would not impact press freedom.
The Myanmar Press Council’s U Myint Kyaw said the comment was made “irresponsibly.”
U Ye Naing Moe, of the Yangon Journalism School, said that the arrest “undoubtedly threatened” press freedom and the rights of those who work in the media industry, including news editors and reporters. He also emphasized the criminalization of journalists through Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act as a “disturbing” and “dangerous” trend.
Conflict is ongoing in Myanmar and journalists and editors will continue reporting on it, as it is very impactful news for the public, U Ye Naing Moe said.
“If communicating with ethnic armed groups is considered illegal, how are media supposed to report on civil war?” he asked.
He also added that the government, particularly the Ministry of Information, should mediate between respective parties in the case.
U Shwe Mann, chair of the Union Parliament’s Legal Affairs and Special Cases Assessment Commission, told The Irrawaddy on Thursday in Naypyidaw that he would do an assessment on the arrest of the three journalists if media organizations submitted the case to his commission. The commission also has plans to review Article 17(1) of the Unlawful Associations Act, he said.
The Irrawaddy’s Pe Thet Htet Khin contributed to this report from Naypyidaw.