YANGON — Two foreign journalists and two Myanmar nationals were sentenced to two months in jail at a Naypyitaw court today under an unexpected charge after attempting to fly a drone near Myanmar’s Parliament.
Journalists Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia along with interpreter Aung Naing Soe and driver Hla Tin were charged under the colonial-era 1934 Myanmar Aircraft Act.
The four also face charges under the 2012 Export and Import Law for illegally bringing the drone into the country, which carries a penalty of up to three years in jail. They have been in custody since Oct. 27 and will face the charge in the next trial on Nov. 16.
The defendants and their lawyers were aware of the export/import charge, but the plaintiff’s lawyer informed the court today of another complaint under the aircraft act.
Mok Choy Lin asked the judge of the punishment for breaching the aircraft act, who replied it would be either three months’ imprisonment or a 50,000 kyats fine, according to U Khin Maung Zaw, the lawyer for Aung Naing Soe, Hla Tin and Mok Choy Lin.
Mok Choy Lin and Lau Hon Meng agreed to each pay the fine and admitted to the charge. Initially, Aung Naing Soe and Hla Tin rejected the complaint, arguing they were not journalists.
The judge told the driver and interpreter he would call for witnesses and investigate whether they breached the aircraft act, which would lengthen the court process.
On the advice of their lawyer, the pair then accepted the complaint. However, the judge sentenced the four to two months’ imprisonment.
“We did not expect this charge,” said the lawyer, who had prepared a defence only for the export/import charge. This case is the first time the aircraft act has been used to penalize drone flying.
When The Irrawaddy asked the lawyer whether it was legal to add a new charge during the trial, he replied: “They can do it based on the rule of law in Burma.”
The journalists were working for Turkish state broadcaster TRT World, which stated Lau Hon Meng, a camera operator, and producer Lau Hon Meng had entered Myanmar on journalist visas on Oct. 21. The journalists had already informed authorities about their plans to film beforehand, according to TRT World.
Attending the trial were the families of Lau Hon Meng, Aung Naing Soe and Hla Tin, and a friend of Mok Choy Lin. It was the first time relatives and friends could see the defendants since their arrest, as authorities blocked visits due to the “ongoing investigation.”
Rights activists criticized the refusal of visiting rights, saying the defendants had not been charged with a serious crime. Previous cases against media members, including under the Unlawful Association Act, have also barred visitors.
The two foreign journalists were being held at No. 1 Police Station in Naypyitaw and the two Myanmar nationals were being held at Pyinmana Prison, also in Naypyitaw. After the trial they were taken to No. 1 Police Station and will be transferred to Yamethin Prison in Mandalay Region later this evening, according to Ko Ye Htoo, a close friend of Aung Naing Soe.
The sentencing marks the first time the authorities have taken action against journalists since the outbreak of the latest Rohingya crisis in late August.
Aung Naing Soe is well respected among Myanmar’s journalistic community as a fixer, photographer and cameraman. As a Muslim, he has faced anti-Muslim sentiment while working—including being blocked entry to some hardline nationalist monk meetings.