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Journalists Among Thousands to Be Freed in Myanmar Amnesty

Prison officers and police gather near the entrance of Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2021, ahead of an announced amnesty.
Prison officers and police gather near the entrance of Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2021, ahead of an announced amnesty.

At least 50 journalists were among the thousands of people due to be freed from prison in Myanmar this week after the military announced an amnesty.

The military-installed government announced an amnesty for 5,600 people on Monday. The figure includes over 1,300 who had been convicted, and 4,320 who were awaiting trial.

Among those named on the list are three journalists from the independent broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB); two journalists from the VOA affiliate Mizzima; and Sithu Aung Myint, a veteran journalist who contributes to VOA and who has been jailed since August 15. The DVB journalists were freed Monday but as of Thursday Sithu Aung Myint remained in custody.

A team of lawyers representing the journalists on a pro-bono basis welcomed the announcement but said it would continue to assist the dozens still behind bars.

"We are relieved and happy to know that three DVB journalists, including Aung Kyaw, from Myeik, and Min Nyo, from Pyay, were released. We have to wait and see whether all 50 journalists are released. If not, we'll continue to represent them,” the legal team’s spokesperson, Khin Maung Myint, told VOA Burmese.

Most of those released had faced charges under Section 505a, which criminalizes content deemed to cause fear or spread false news about the government, but it was unclear if those accused under other sections of the penal code would be freed.

Incitement charges filed against Htet Htet Khine, who freelances for the BBC, were dropped under the amnesty, but a charge under the Unlawful Association Act remains active, the spokesperson for the legal team said.

On Wednesday, the Facebook group Myanmar Press Freedom In-Depth, which tracks jailed journalists, said at least 17 journalists have left prison since the start of this week. But dozens more remain in custody.

One of those is American journalist Danny Fenster, whom Myanmar has charged under its laws on incitement and the Unlawful Associations Act. Fenster, who is managing editor of Frontier Myanmar, was not named in the amnesty and remains in custody.

Originally from Detroit, Fenster has been jailed since May 24 for offenses allegedly carried out by Myanmar Now, months after Fenster resigned from the news outlet, his lawyer says.

Family members wait for prisoners to be released under an amnesty, outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2021.
Family members wait for prisoners to be released under an amnesty, outside Insein Prison in Yangon, Myanmar, Oct. 18, 2021.

Frontier Myanmar has said it will end its print publication and temporarily cease its online and social media operation.

In a message emailed to subscribers, editor-in-chief Thomas Kean cited political instability and risks to staff from possible arrest or the coronavirus.

“The conditions for journalists working inside the country have gotten progressively worse over the past few months as the regime gets more desperate to crush resistance,” Kean said.

His message added that many of the outlet’s reporters are in hiding and that it has become harder for the photographers to work.

Mixed feelings

The amnesty brought mixed emotions for those freed, including DVB reporter Min Nyo, who was arrested in March while covering a protest over the military takeover, and later sentenced to three years in prison.

The reporter said that 170 people were detained under incitement charges in Pyay, in Myanmar’s Bago region, but only eight of those have been freed.

"Many youth remain in prison. We are not happy to be released, because we feel uncomfortable looking at those left behind in jail. They have hopes and vision for future,” Min Nyo told VOA. “We left prison with sadness, and we want them to be released as soon as possible."

Also freed were Mizzima co-founder Thin Thin Aung and one of her staff, James Pu Thoure. Both were arrested on April 8 on charges of incitement.

Since the February 1 coup, arrest warrants have been issued for at least 10 Mizzima journalists, including the managing director and editor-in-chief Soe Myint and managing editor Sein Win.

The amnesty deal was announced three days after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) declined to invite Myanmar’s military leader to a summit.

ASEAN cited a lack of progress on plans the junta had agreed to in April to restore peace in Myanmar.

Myanmar's military government blamed "foreign intervention" for the decision.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) tied the prisoner release to the junta’s attempts to blunt international criticism.

The military announcement “must not be met with applause. It is a tactic of the junta to stop international condemnation. These releases will not end the coup,” the AAPP said.

The group said that as of Monday, 7,355 people were detained, including 354 who have been sentenced. A further 1,989 are under arrest warrant and Myanmar has sentenced over 100 in absentia.

Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said that while the prisoners' release was welcome, it came "not because of a change of heart, but because of pressure."

In a statement posted to Twitter, Andrews added that they had been detained "illegally for exercising their fundamental human rights."

This story originated in VOA’s Burmese Service.