The court hearing for three journalists who were arrested recently in Shan State and charged under the Unlawful Association Act has been rescheduled for next week.
An impromptu remand hearing for the Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng and DVB’s Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, along with three civilians, was held this morning around 11:30am in Hsipaw. The new court hearing date was announced as 28 July.
Speaking to DVB over the phone on Tuesday morning, Myint Win, a police major from Hsipaw police station, said, “Today, there won’t be any investigation on this case. Just for replacing the remand of Namhsan court with that of Hsipaw court. They are now being told their rights and matters related to hiring attorneys.”
The three journalists and three civilians were arrested and charged under Section 17/1 of Unlawful Associations Act last month when they were travelling back from a drug-burning event in an area under the control of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA).
Allowed to speak publicly for the first time since his arrest, veteran reporter Aye Nai stated: “We did not even have a pen or any sharp objects. We went to these sites where it is very likely we could either step on a landmine or be shot mistakenly. We devote our lives to work as journalists.
Sadly, we were charged under Section 17/1 [Unlawful Associations Act] which was never been used previously against any media practitioners in Myanmar.”
Aye Nai also revealed the details of when they were first detained. “We were arrested and then interrogated for more than 24 hours, maybe about 48 hours, by infantry battalion 503,” he said. “We answered their questions without being discreet.”
He concluded, “Whatever grudges there used to be, it is time for the country to rehabilitate,” and also called on the lawmakers to amend Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law used to silence journalists.
“I am a journalist and now I am handcuffed. Is this democracy?” said Lawi Weng, holding up his chained wrists when speaking to reporters outside Hsipaw township courthouse.
He continued: “This is a threat by the Tatmadaw [Burmese armed forces]. We were detained as an attempt to compromise our beliefs and scare us. But we are not afraid. They threatened us but we are not afraid. We went to the frontline [to report on] ethnic affairs and the peace process.”
Lawi Weng raised also raised the matter of the three civilians arrested alongside the trio of journalists. “Those brothers [the three civilians] are Palaung villagers. They did not do anything wrong. They were detained just for being in the same car as us. They went there because their fellow ethnic people organized an event.”
He then called out: “They say [this is] democracy, but what really is democracy? The democracy in this country: journalists are detained in prison for covering news?”
“No matter which government comes into power, we, journalists will do our jobs as journalists,” stated DVB’s Pyae Phone Aung.
A court date for a hearing was originally set for 11 July, then delayed until 21 July, before a new date was set today. When asked what the reason was for rescheduling the court date, a Hsipaw police officer said the judge had to attend a training workshop on 21 July and was therefore unable to be in court that day.
Calls for the release of the three journalists and the charges to be dropped remain strong from both the domestic and international community. A rally was recently held in downtown Rangoon, organised by the Protection for Journalists Committee, when demonstrators called for the release of the trio and the repeal of Article 66(d) of the Telecommunications Law.
Legal experts have questioned the legal basis for the case brought against the three journalists, and the International Commission of Jurists has condemned the authorities for violating their rights as they were held for two days incommunicado, without access to legal assistance.
This story was updated at 11:00am on Wednesday to clarify remarks made by Police Major Myint Win.