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Journalists on Trial for Covering Myanmar Coup

Myanmar police talk to people gathering outside the Kamayut court in Yangon, March 12, 2021.
Myanmar police talk to people gathering outside the Kamayut court in Yangon, March 12, 2021.

Preliminary hearings were held Tuesday for three journalists detained in Yangon on February 27 while covering protests of the military coup.

The journalists — Aung Ye Ko, of the 7 Day Media; Hein Pyae Zaw of Zee-Gwet or “Owl” Media; and freelancer Banyar Oo — appeared in a prison court for the closed hearing, a lawyer representing them told VOA Burmese. The lawyer, Nilar Khine, said she did not seek bail because the courts have rejected requests in similar cases. Her clients are next due in court on April 20.

The journalists are among at least 60 members of the media arrested since Myanmar’s military seized control in a February 1 coup, according to lawyers.

Often, family are not told where their relatives are. Lawyers working on a pro-bono basis wait outside Insein prison in Yangon to help families find relatives, including journalists, who have gone missing while at protests.

Aung Ye Ko and the others in court this week are charged under Article 505 (a) of Myanmar’s penal code. The same article has been used to charge several other journalists, including freelance video journalist Aung Ko Latt who was detained on March 21.

Those convicted under Section 505 (a) can be sentenced to up to two years in prison. The article makes it a crime to publish or circulate any “statement, rumor or report… with intent to cause, or which is likely to cause,” a member of the military to fail in their duty.

A preliminary hearing was held in Aung Ko Latt’s case, at a prison court in Naypyidaw on Monday, the same day that his son was born. The journalist has tested positive for COVID-19 in prison.

The media arrests are part of a wider pattern of detentions and violent suppression of protests against the military takeover.

As of Wednesday, 598 civilians, including dozens of children, have been killed by government troops and police, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which cautioned the actual number of fatalities is likely much higher.

Of the 3,500 people arrested, 2,847 are still detained, the AAPP said, adding that 38 have been sentenced. Authorities have issued arrest warrants for 481 others.

The National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Aung San Suu Kyi, had governed Myanmar since its first open democratic election in 2015, but the military contested November's election results, claiming widespread electoral fraud, without evidence.

Suu Kyi and President Win Myint were detained in the February 1 coup. Since then, martial law has been imposed throughout Myanmar.

The military has released a wanted list of more than 120 celebrities, public figures, and prominent influencers, who have been charged under 505 (a) for supporting protests.

Sithu Aung Myint, a VOA Burmese contributor to the Weekly Analysis program, is on the list.

“There is no press freedom nor rights or access to get information,” said Sithu Aung Myint. “Everybody has been charged with 505 (a) for protesting, participating in [Civil Disobedience Movement], donating to food-funds, assisting medics tend wounded protesters.”

“Even the president and the state counselor have been charged in fabricated cases,” he said. “The coup leaders keep saying that they are abiding by the law, but in fact they are not abiding laws, not a bit.”

Myanmar’s military has said that authorities arrest only journalists inciting unrest.

The head of the State Administrative Council press team and spokesman for the army, Brigadier General Zaw Min Tun, added at a March 11 news conference that the military “respects and values media freedom.”

Coverage of the coup and its aftermath is seen as increasingly risky for the media.

“Journalists in small towns cannot simply stay at home, it is not safe,” said a journalist, whose identity has been withheld to protect them from retaliation. “All the journalists are in hiding. If caught or arrested, we’ll be brutally tortured. Most of us do not have enough money to survive in hiding. It is really hard.”

The family of those detained have also described the hardship of not being able to speak with their relatives.

Chit Swe has not been able to see his son Than Htike Aung since the former editor of multimedia news organization Mizzima was arrested on March 19. Than Htike Aung is charged under section 505 (a) after he covered a court hearing of a member of the NLD party.

“Lawyers are still not allowed to meet with my son. No one is allowed to see him, and it is very painful,” Chit Swe said. “However, somehow, it is a relief to know that he is alive. My son was just doing his job. We keep praying for his safe return.”

This story originated in VOA’s Burmese service.