Amnesty International has called for the release of journalists facing prison over charges linked to reporting from Shan State.
The Myanmar authorities must immediately and unconditionally release three journalists who were arrested in conflict-ridden northern Shan State last month, Amnesty International said ahead of their trial on July 28.
Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, both reporters for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), and Thein Zaw (aka Lawi Weng), a reporter for the Irrawaddy newspaper, were arrested on 26 June, along with four other people they were travelling with.
They have since been charged under the Unlawful Association Act and could face up to three years in prison if convicted. Three others arrested with them are also facing charges, including under the same Act, while a seventh man arrested on 26 June has since been released.
“The farcical charges against these journalists must be dropped immediately, they have done nothing but carry out their work peacefully,” said James Gomez, Amnesty International’s Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
“This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage. 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.”
Soldiers from Myanmar’s armed forces arrested the journalists on their way back from reporting on a drug-burning ceremony in an area controlled by the ethnic armed group Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
The media workers were held incommunicado in a secret location for two days after their arrest, before they were transferred to Hsipaw prison in northern Shan State where they are currently detained. Their trial started on 28 July at the Hsipaw Township Court. Legal proceedings to date have been marred by a lack of transparency, and two earlier court appearances were unexpectedly rescheduled, raising concerns about access to lawyers, according to Amnesty.
The Myanmar authorities have for years used a slew of draconian laws to intimidate, harass, arrest and imprison critics and media workers. The Unlawful Association Act is one such law – it grants authorities sweeping powers to arrest people considered to be part of or in contact with an “unlawful association”, and is in particular often used in ethnic and religious minority areas.
“Many had hoped that the days when Myanmar relied on its repressive legal framework to silence peaceful criticism were long gone, but sadly the same old patterns of repression continue. The Unlawful Association Act is so vaguely worded that it can easily be misused to jail political opponents as well as journalists on the most flimsy grounds – it must be repealed immediately,” said Mr Gomez.
The seven men were detained in northern Shan State, in the north part of Myanmar, an area that has seen intense fighting between the Myanmar Army and a range of ethnic armed groups in recent years. In a report released in June this year, Amnesty International documented how civilians from ethnic minority groups in Kachin State and northern Shan State are suffering appalling abuses, including possible war crimes.