YANGON — The Myanmar Army affirmed that it would not put pressure on judges handling the case of three journalists detained in Shan State and facing charges under the Unlawful Associations Act, according to a Myanmar Press Council member who met with military personnel on Thursday.
Myanmar Journalism Institute’s Executive Director, U Thiha Saw—who is also a member of the Myanmar Press Council, the body tasked with negotiating with the authorities—described his discussions with army officials to The Irrawaddy.
“What they told me is, the army has specifically learned that the case was not carried out aggressively. At the moment, the cases are already handled by the courts and the police. So, the army will not pressure or weigh in on the judiciary’s role. The judiciary will decide on what they think is justifiable, regarding the case,” he said.
U Thiha Saw said the army typically opens a court case if they feel that an individual’s conduct violates the existing laws, and therefore, “they [the army] will not drop the charges against the three journalists.”
The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng, also known as U Thein Zaw, and U Aye Nai and Pyae Bone Aung from the Democratic Voice of Burma, were arrested on June 26 in Namhsan Township on their way back from covering a drug-burning ceremony held by the ethnic armed group the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to mark the United Nations’ International Day Against Drug Abuse.
The trio—and three men who drove them through the TNLA 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.
Free speech advocates, press members and rights groups have denounced the move by the military and cited it as a threat to press freedom and an attempt to intimidate journalists for doing their jobs.
On Thursday, one day before the reporters’ court hearing was scheduled to take place at the Hsipaw Township Court in northern Shan State, Amnesty International called for the immediate release of the three journalists.
In the statement, Amnesty International accused the Myanmar authorities of using “a slew of draconian laws to intimidate, harass, arrest and imprison critics and media workers,” for years.
“This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage,” the statement said. “It is exactly in northern Shan State and the other ethnic areas wracked by conflict, where appalling human rights abuses are rife, that independent journalism is needed the most,” it added.
James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific said that the current authorities have been using the same patterns of repression for which Myanmar was notorious in the past, and that many hoped the days of repressive legal barriers to silence criticism had ended.
“The farcical charges against these journalists must be dropped immediately,” Gomez said in the statement. “They have done nothing but carry out their work peacefully.”
Htet Naing Zaw contributed to this report from Naypyidaw.