YANGON — The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) has submitted its findings and suggestions on the case of three detained journalists in northern Shan State to the defense ministry after its members visited the reporters in Hsipaw Prison.
Commission members met The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng, also known as U Thein Zaw, and U Aye Naing and U Pyae Phone Aung from the Democratic Voice of Burma, and checked the conditions of the inmates on August 9.
The MNHRC inspected jail cells in police stations and courts in Lashio and Hsipaw as part of countrywide prison reforms. It presented its wider findings to the home affairs ministry and made recommendations on the case of the three journalists to the defense ministry.
“We presented to the defense ministry that the journalists should not have been arrested for going to a public place and doing their jobs,” said commission member U Yu Lwin Aung.
The Myanmar Army detained the three reporters along with three other men on June 26 as they returned from covering a drug-burning ceremony hosted by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to mark the United Nations’ International Day against Drug Abuse.
Later, the journalists were charged under Article 17(1) of the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act after Tatmadaw Adjutant Thet Naing Oo from Light Infantry Battalion No. 503 filed the lawsuit case.
Violators of Article 17(1) face two to three years in prison and a possible fine for being a member of an “unlawful association,” making contributions to such an association or assisting in its operations.
U Yu Lwin Aung said no action should be taken against the journalists for covering the drug-burning event, which was also attended by local people including civil servants.
If the military has evidence the reporters are connected to the TNLA, an outlawed organization, he said, the commission cannot object to the arrest and would instead await the court’s decision.
“Reporters will cover stories in areas of the military’s opponents. It is their job. But we don’t know what evidence is included in the confiscated cameras, phones and laptops of the three journalists. If there is evidence that could damage national security, action could be taken against them,” U Yu Lwin Aung said.
Press advocacy groups and rights groups have urged authorities to drop the charges against the journalists immediately and denounced the move as an attempt to intimidate journalists for doing their jobs.
U Yu Lwin Aung previously told the media right after the visit to Hsipaw that the journalists did not break the law.
The plaintiff submitted a compact disk with data allegedly copied from the journalists’ cameras and phones to be examined as evidence by Hsipaw Township Court.
The journalists’ lawyers objected, stating that the evidence was inadmissible and questioning its authenticity as Maj Myat Maw Aung, a military witness, testified at the trial that they had deleted the original data from the reporters’ confiscated cameras and phones.
The court will rule whether to accept the evidence on Friday.