Three Burmese reporters detained at an undisclosed location by the army will be charged under a colonial-era statute against “unlawful association” and risk up to three years in prison, government and army officials said on Tuesday.
The military arrested the journalists in northeastern Shan State on Monday after they covered a drug-burning event organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group designated as an “unlawful association” by authorities.
The reporters are from two media outlets publishing both in Burmese and English, DVB and The Irrawaddy. They were among the few media organisations providing the world independent coverage of Burma when it was under military rule before a democratic transition began in 2011.
The arrests alarmed Burma’s media community, increasing fears that freedom of speech has become increasingly restricted since the government of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi took power in April last year.
“Everyone should be treated according to the law,” Suu Kyi’s spokesman Zaw Htay told Reuters. He added that the military told him it planned to charge the reporters under the Unlawful Association Act. A military source confirmed this.
Citing information from the army, Zaw Htay said the three reporters and four other men arrested with them were “being treated very well” at a military guesthouse and would be handed over to the police “tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.”
Despite pressure from human rights bodies and the West, Suu Kyi’s government has retained loosely worded security laws dating to British colonial rule, which ended in 1948, and decried by monitors as violating free speech.
Suu Kyi has not spoken out against increasingly frequent arrests of reporters and activists.
The Unlawful Association Act has long been used by the authorities to arbitrarily arrest and detain people in Burma, in particular people in ethnic and religious minority areas, according to human rights watchdog Amnesty International, which has called on the government to release the journalists.
Western governments have also expressed their concern over the incident. “Journalists need to be able to do their work, as a free press is essential to Myanmar’s success,” the US Embassy in Rangoon said on its official Facebook page.
The editors from the publications where the reporters work told Reuters they had tried obtaining explanations from the military and the government, but to no avail.
“We are all concerned about the situation, because we have lost connection with the detainees,” Than Win Htut, a DVB editor, told Reuters. “Their families have the right to know what happened to them.”