The trial of three journalists and three other men accused of “unlawful association” with an ethnic armed group began in earnest on Friday, with a court in Hsipaw Township, Shan State, taking testimony from the case’s plaintiff, an army major.
The six defendants’ legal counsel submitted bail requests on Friday but the court did not rule on that motion and is expected to do so at their next hearing in a week’s time. Out of nine witnesses lined up by the prosecution, only one gave testimony on Friday, according to Maung Maung Win, a lawyer for the defence who named that individual as plaintiff Thet Naing Oo.
The reporters-turned-defendants in the case are DVB’s Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, and The Irrawaddy news outlet’s Lawi Weng. The other three men facing unlawful association charges are Mai Tun Aye, Sai Aung Kham and Mai Sai Nyunt.
The six were arrested on 26 June as they were returning from territory controlled by the Ta’ang National Liberation Army in Namhsan Township, Shan State, where they had attended a drug-burning ceremony organised by the ethnic armed group to commemorate International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.
They have been charged under article 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act, a colonial-era piece of legislation that has been used to criminalise contact with several of Burma’s non-state armed groups.
Under the provision, anyone who “is a member of an unlawful association, or takes part in meetings of any such association, or contributes or receives or solicits any contribution for the purpose of any such association or in any way assists the operations of any such association,” faces up to three years in prison.
The trial in Hsipaw, which has faced delays, is being held up as the latest case to challenge press freedom in Burma, where pre-publication censorship was only abolished in 2012 after decades of tight-fisted military rule.
“The farcical charges against these journalists must be dropped immediately, they have done nothing but carry out their work peacefully,” James Gomez, Amnesty International’s director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement from the group on Thursday.
“This is a clear attempt by the authorities to intimidate journalists and silence their critical coverage. It is exactly in northern Shan State and the other ethnic areas wracked by conflict, where appalling human rights abuses are rife, that independent journalism is needed the most.”
Maung Maung Win told DVB the defence would argue that the accused journalists were simply doing their jobs last month when they traveled to northern Shan State for the drug-burning event.
“I got this because I am a journalist. This is our country’s democracy,” Lawi Weng said as he emerged from a police detention vehicle to attend Friday’s hearing, pointing to a cuffed hand.
The defendants’ next court appearance is scheduled for 4 August.
With reporting by Yan Naing Zaw Win and Arkar in Hsipaw.