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In a surprise Friday announcement, the Tatmadaw said that it will be dropping charges that it had filed against six journalists, including a high-profile “unlawful association” case the military had brought against two reporters from DVB and one from The Irrawaddy news outlet.
In a statement, the Tatmadaw said the move was due to the “cooperative role in [Burma’s] journey” toward democracy that the military is playing. It noted the importance of the media in democratic societies, while defending its initial decisions to bring charges against some journalists.
“Some media writings harm the image and dignity of the Tatmadaw, which protects national defence and the lives and properties of people. Thus, the Tatmadaw took actions against the media in accordance with the law,” read the statement.
“Nonetheless, the Tatmadaw recognises that media workers and the Tatmadaw share the same cause and work for the interests of the country and its people. In order to continue cooperating for the sake of the national interest, the Tatmadaw eliminates grudges against the past incidents and withdrew the lawsuits against media practitioners and some [other] persons.”
Major General Aung Ye Win of the Tatmadaw’s True News Information Team confirmed that the lawsuits filed against the journalists have been dropped.
Two other men also saw charges brought against them by the military dropped on Friday. Htin Kyaw and Wai Yan Thein, both activists, were facing charges under Burma’s penal code. The Tatmadaw statement did not explain why they would no longer be prosecuted.
In addition to DVB reporters Aye Nai and Pyae Phone Aung, and The Irrawaddy’s Lawi Weng, the Tatmadaw statement listed the cases of three other members of the media whose defamation charges would be dropped: The Voice Daily’s chief editor Kyaw Min Swe and columnist British Ko Ko Maung, and Wai Phyo, editor-in-chief of Eleven Media.
The three reporters in Hsipaw were granted bail, set at 1 million kyats ($735), and released on Friday afternoon. They will need to appear before the court again on 4 September to conclude procedural formalities.
Also released on Friday was Tun Aye, one of three other men who were arrested along with Aye Nai, Pyae Phone Aung and Lawi Weng in June.
The six men were detained 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.
The two other men — Aung Kham and Sai Nyunt — will also have their unlawful association cases dropped but were not granted bail on Friday, as they will still have to faces charges related to allegedly operating an unlicensed vehicle.
“It is amazing news,” Lawi Weng told DVB from Hsipaw, referring to the military’s decision to drop its case. “When it comes to democracy, the media is the fourth estate. Media freedom should be prioritised. Filing lawsuits against us under 17/1 of the Unlawful Associations Act is a threat to the media, and a threat to the path toward democracy.”
In a statement, the Myanmar Press Council said it “especially thanks the Tatmadaw for showing magnanimity” in dropping the charges against the six journalists.
Their cases were roundly criticised by press freedom and human rights activists, who have flagged the colonial-era Unlawful Associations Act and the 2013 Telecommunications Law as requiring amendments.
The two journalists from The Voice were among dozens of people in recent years caught up by the Telecommunications Law’s article 66(d), a vaguely worded provision that criminalises online defamation. President Htin Kyaw this week signed into law some changes to the legislation, including reducing the maximum prison sentence for article 66(d) violations from three years to two, but critics say the amendments don’t go far enough.
This story was updated at 3:07 p.m.