A team of journalists have been sentenced in Naypyidaw to two months in prison under a colonial-era law in the latest judicial ruling to imperil freedom of the press in Burma.
Aung Naing Soe, a respected local reporter and fixer, was arrested on 27 October alongside two foreign journalists working for the Turkish outlet TRT World. Their driver, Hla Tin, was also charged and sentenced on Friday.
The group was initially charged under Article 8 of the Export and Import Law, which Aung Naing Soe’s lawyer Khin Maung Zaw labelled “irrelevant” in a phone call with DVB last week.
The two foreign journalists — Lau Hon Meng from Singapore and Mok Choy Lin from Malaysia — were held at police station No. 1 in the capital since their arrest, but Burmese nationals Aung Naing Soe and Hla Tin were detained in prison in nearby Pyinmana.
Police raided Aung Naing Soe’s Yangon home the evening of their arrest, reportedly telling his parents that they did not require a warrant to do so. Officers seized documents, USB drives and other electronic devices from his residence. His family and his lawyer have been denied access to the 26-year-old reporter since his detention.
Burmese state media has said the group attempted to shoot aerial footage of the parliamentary complex in Naypyidaw without permission, although the foreign reporters were in the country on valid journalist visas and said they had cleared their plans with authorities in advance. Police said they were investigating the group for bringing the drone into Burma, although the Export and Import Law does not refer specifically to drones, and neither Aung Naing Soe nor Hla Tin are thought to have operated the device.
Speaking outside the Zabuthiri Township Court after the sentence was delivered on Friday, Aung Naing Soe said: “We were sentenced to two months’ imprisonment under the 1934 Burma Aircraft Act, Article 10. We knew that we were initially charged under Article 8 [of the Export and Import Law]. When we arrived at the court, we learned that we were charged under Article 10 [of the Burma Aircraft Act].
“I was interrogated about the drone case and also about my recent trips to Kachin, Shan and Rakhine states. … I do not want to comment any further on the verdict. I assume that we will be able to submit an appeal later.”
Reuters quoted defence counsel Khin Maung Zaw as saying, “The detainees admitted that they committed the crime hoping they would only be fined, so it shocked us when the judge sentenced them to two months.”
The lawyer said he would appeal in an effort to reduce the prison sentence to a fine.
Several journalists have been arrested this year, fuelling fears that press freedom is on the wane under the National League for Democracy government. Two DVB journalists were detained alongside a fellow reporter from The Irrawaddy news outlet following a reporting trip in Shan State in June. They were later released after the military, as plaintiff, decided to drop the case against them on 1 September.
The next hearing in the Naypyidaw case is scheduled for 16 November, when the Export and Import Law charges are expected to be put before the judge. Article 8 of that legislation carries with it a maximum sentence of three years in prison.