Three journalists arrested on Monday in Shan State are likely to be handed over to police “soon,” according to a senior government official, as questions mount as to why the men were detained and pressure grows on the military to reveal their whereabouts nearly 48 hours after they were taken into custody.
Speaking to DVB on Wednesday morning, President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said: “They are in a military guesthouse and they were treated very well. Action will be taken in accordance with the law. But I cannot say which laws. The military will do that. They will be transferred [to Lashio police station] as soon as possible.”
The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng and DVB’s Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung were detained along with four civilians on Monday afternoon in Namhsan Township as they were travelling back from reporting on a drug-burning ceremony organised by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), an ethnic armed group based in northeastern Shan State.
Police Captain Kyaw Naing from the Lashio Myoma police station told DVB on Wednesday that as of 1pm, the military and senior police officials had not yet provided information on the status of the seven detainees.
“We don’t know yet when the military will transfer the arrested people to us. They haven’t informed us about the transferring. The military must inform police officials if they want to transfer the arrested people to the police station, but the military hasn’t yet done that,” he said.
Diplomats and international human rights groups have expressed alarm as word of the detentions has spread, with some calling for the release of those in military custody.
The US Embassy issued a statement on Tuesday expressing its concern over the arrests and emphasising that “journalists need to be able to do their work, as a free press is essential to Myanmar’s success.”
Matthew Smith from the human rights group Fortify Rights added, “We’re first and foremost concerned about the well-being and whereabouts of those detained. We’re concerned the military targeted them for doing their legitimate work.” He pointed to the long history of abuse that journalists and political prisoners have faced when held for interrogation by Burmese authorities.
The Committee to Protect Journalists on Tuesday called for the three reporters’ immediate release.
That was echoed by London-based Burma Campaign UK.
“[Commander-in-Chief Senior-General] Min Aung Hlaing must immediately release the seven people, including the three journalists, who he has detained. With hundreds of thousands of soldiers at his command, why is he so afraid of three journalists and what they will report?” Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK, told DVB.
Also on Tuesday, DVB sent a letter to the Myanmar Press Council requesting that the council intervene and negotiate in an effort to secure the release of the detained reporters.
But Win Htein, a senior member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party leadership, was less inclined to view the detained reporters’ plight sympathetically.
“One cannot just go there every time someone sends an invitation. Often I am invited but I do not go there because I understand the law,” he said. “They [ethnic armed organisations] should inform the Peace Commission, saying they would like to invite reporters and requesting permission. If the Peace Commission allows that, it is legitimate.”
Describing another press junket to an area under a different ethnic armed group’s control, he explained: “Another group [of media] will go to the Wa group. They asked permission from the Ministry of Home Affairs as well as Defence Services, and got the permission. That’s what is supposed to be done. One can’t just do whatever he thinks is right.”
‘Problematic laws’ still in force
If the journalists are to be charged under the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act’s article 17(1) — as Reuters on Tuesday reported was likely — they face a potential three-year prison term.
Critics say several laws used to stifle freedom of expression and intimidate the press remain on the books more than a year after State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, a former political prisoner and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, installed her NLD government.
In addition to the Unlawful Associations Act, the broadly worded article 66(d) defamation provision of the 2013 Telecommunications Law has landed several people in jail, including satire columnists, poets and journalists.
Smith told DVB on Tuesday that “these vague laws should be repealed. The authorities have abusively applied them for decades. The time has come to repeal these laws and end these violations.”
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, also called for both laws to be revoked: “Article 66[d] and article 17 are the new favorite tools of the Burmese military to attack their critics and criminalize association with any group that the military doesn’t like. … If the NLD doesn’t use their overwhelming parliamentary majority to fix problematic laws in situations like these, the Burmese people should be asking what exactly they voted for.”
‘Doing their job’
The detained journalists were simply “doing their job,” Aye Chan Naing, DVB’s chief editor, said this week in defence of their presence in territory controlled by the TNLA. “In any country around the world, journalists have to cover news from both sides of the conflict,” he said.
In a statement released on Monday, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, James Gomez, said “these arrests are a crude attempt to intimidate journalists by a military that cannot seem to abide even the faintest criticism.”
Robertson of HRW called on the civilian government to raise its voice and “instruct prosecutors to not bring any charges against these reporters.”
He added, “By holding these reporters incommunicado for simply doing their job, the Tatmadaw is directly threatening the political transition progress on freedom of expression and independent [sic] of the media.”