The three journalists – Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Naing of Democratic Voice of Burma and Thein Zaw of The Irrawaddy – were arrested under the Unlawful Association Act after covering an event organized by the outlawed Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) to mark International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
They will be facing the possibility of up to three years in prison when they appear in court next week.
“It is very disturbing to see that Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) continues to ignore the mounting appeals from members of the public and the international community,” RSF said.
“Burma cannot really claim to be committed to a new democratic era if it does not defend the media and freedom of expression. We call on the government to free these three journalists at once and to drop the charges that were unjustly brought against them.”
Hundreds of media freedom defenders and civil society representatives took part in a major demonstration in Rangoon on 30 June to demand the release of the three journalists.
The European Union and United States have also reacted to the decline in respect for freedoms in Burma. The EU has urged the government to protect journalists against “intimidation, arrest or prosecution.” The US said: “Journalists need to be able to do their work, as a free press is essential to [Burma’s] success.”
Laws still being misused
In Burma, authorities often still harass the media using laws that were specifically designed to silence criticism. The use of the Unlawful Association Act to arrest the three journalists was all the more disturbing because the former military regime often used it to censor the media, and many journalists thought the NLD’s election in 2015 would mean the end of such abuses.
Although a transition to democracy has in theory been under way for several years now, government efforts to protect journalists have been limited if not non-existent.
And, worse than stagnation, we are now seeing a resurgence of abuses against the media. Of late, a new case of journalists being intimidated, prosecuted or imprisoned has occurred almost every week.
Despite the NLD’s victory in the 2015 legislative elections, some journalists liken the current climate to the systematic censorship that existed under the former military regime, when the only independent Burmese media outlets were those operated by journalists based abroad – outlets such as The Irrawaddy, a news website based Thailand, and Democratic Voice of Burma, an Oslo-based news agency.
Article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act ranks alongside the Unlawful Association Act as legislative weapons that the authorities, especially the armed forces, most use against their critics.
The journalists charged under this law in the past year include Myo Yan Naung Thein, who was convicted of defaming the head of the armed forces in April, and The Voice Daily editor Kyaw Min Swe, who is currently imprisoned in connection with an article mocking a military propaganda film.
In all, more than 65 proceedings have been initiated under article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act. Those targeted include 14 journalists, some of whom have not yet appeared in court.
RSF is one of 61 human rights groups that have issued a joint appeal to the Burmese authorities to repeal article 66(d) of the 2013 Telecommunications Act. RSF also urges the authorities to quickly take the necessary steps to protect journalists and guarantee an environment that allows them to work properly.
Burma is ranked in the bottom third ofRSF’s 2017 World Press Freedom Index – 131st out of 180 countries