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Myanmar crackdown on journalists interviewing Arakan Army

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Myanmar Special Branch Police are cracking down on journalists who interview the Arakan Army (AA) ethnic armed organization, which the government recently designated a terrorist group, making arrests and filing lawsuits under offenses that potentially carry sentences of life imprisonment.

The government has also announced that anyone in contact with the AA faces prosecution under the Counterterrorism Law.

Following the arrest of the editor-in-chief of Mandalay-based Voice of Myanmar (VOM) on Monday night, police on Tuesday searched the Sittwe office of Rakhine-based news outlet Narinjara and the home of the editor-in-chief of Yangon-based Khit Thit News.

Ko Ni Min Tun, a reporter from Narinjara, told The Irrawaddy that around 10 plainclothes officers from Special Branch Police and the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) conducted a search of the news outlet’s office at around 5.30 p.m. Tuesday and arrested three reporters—Thein Zaw, Aung Lin Htun and Htun Khaing. They were immediately taken away for interrogation and released at midnight.

Ko Khine Mrat Kyaw, the editor-in-chief of Narinjara, who was away from the office at the time of the police raid, faces charges under the Counter-Terrorism Law—the same repressive law that Special Branch Police used to arrest the VOM editor-in-chief—for the media group’s interview with the AA in a report on fighting in restive Rakhine State involving the ethnic armed group.

The detained VOM editor-in-chief, Ko Nay Lin, was sued under Article 50(a) and Article 52(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law for publishing an interview with the AA’s spokesperson on the ethnic armed group’s response to the government’s declaration of the group as a terrorist organization, and the impact of the move on the peace process.

“It is unjust to arrest reporters and file lawsuits for covering both sides [of a conflict]. And it will have a serious effect on the public’s right to information in Rakhine,” Ko Ni Min Tun said.

The wife of Khit Thit News editor-in-chief U Hline Thit Zin Wai (aka Tha Lun Zaung Htet) told the Myanmar Press Council that around 10 police officers came to the couple’s house in Yangon and questioned her husband late on Tuesday night, without explaining the reason for the interrogation. On March 28, Khit Thit republished VOM’s interview with the AA spokesman.

The council denounced the crackdown on journalists in a statement released on Wednesday.

“At a time when it is important to crack down—together with the official established news media—on the widespread dissemination of fake news about the coronavirus inside the country, taking such action against the [legitimate] media is unacceptable,” it said.

The Press Council also urged authorities to follow the media law, if it is decided that action is needed against media workers, rather than bringing criminal charges.

Ko Kyaw Swa Min, a member of the Press Council, said the council would send a letter to recently appointed Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Soe Htut, who also heads the Anti-Terrorism Central Committee, on Thursday to urge that the charges against the journalists be dropped.

Lt-Gen Soe Htut, a former Military Intelligence chief, took over as home affairs minister—a military-appointed position—in February, replacing Lieutenant General Kyaw Swe, who returned to serve in the army.

“We see no violation of the Media Law by those media organizations. We will also ask the minister why the police brought such accusations against them,” Ko Kyaw Swa Min said.

Article 50(a) of the Counter-Terrorism Law carries a prison sentence of 10 years’ to life imprisonment and a fine for causing severe damage to the security or the life and property of the public, or for forcing the government or any organization to commit an unlawful act or to refrain from following the law.

Article 52(a) carries a maximum prison sentence of seven years for “knowingly participating in a terrorist group,” knowingly concealing or harboring a terrorist group or giving permission for a terrorist group to use a building or gather.

The government declared the AA and its political wing, the United League of Arakan (ULA), as terrorist groups and unlawful associations on March 23. The AA was negotiating a bilateral ceasefire with the government but there have been no talks between the sides since February.

Courtesy – The Irrawaddy

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